This past weekend, I went to Ulm to visit my grandmother's sister, Tante Irmgard. I was also going to meet my sorority sister and good friend Kathleen Fuchs there. It really is a small world: Kathleen, who has spent the semester studying in Spain, also has relatives (whom she had never met) in Ulm. We discovered the connection while we were at Vanderbilt at some point last year, and vowed to make the trip there together. And we did!
Here's an excerpt from my journal about the weekend:
23. Mai 2009
"Today was completely surreal--I don't know how else to put it. I took the 7:46 train from Regensburg and arrived just before 11 am. Tante Irmgard and Onkel Gerhard met me at the train station, and we waited for Kathleen to arrive. Introductions were made and Tante Irmgard tirelessly attempted to use her English to communicate with Kathleen. It was pretty good--I was impressed.
"We got home and Tante Irmgard cooked us lunch--Spätzle, chicken and mushrooms, and a deliciously fresh salad with the best dressing. Then we had vanilla ice cream with hot fruit compote (complete with red currants from her garden) on the balcony.
"Around 2:30 we went into the Altstadt. We climbed the Ulmer Munster (the tallest cathedral in the world)--all 768 steps up, and then of course down again. Then we went to a chocolate shop and bought a famous "Ulmerspatz" each to eat, and I bought some Bosch Wibele that I am currently savoring. We walked by Irmgard and Gerhard's old home on the Stadtmauer [Medieval city wall] and ran into Gerhard's older sister (the home's current resident) and her family having coffee in the garden.
"Later, we brought Kathleen to her relatives' house in Tomerdingen. We made plans for lunch with everyone tomorrow and then drove home.
"After a light dinner of bread, butter, and caprese salad, we sat out on the balcony and Irmgard showed me the letters they found locked and hidden within the framework of the house when they knocked out a wall a few years ago to renovate. The letters are from World War II, when my great-grandmother and father corresponded before Josef's death in 1943. The letters are very difficult for my aunt [Tante Irmgard] to read because Emilie [her mother] never mentioned Josef to her children--the topic was utterly taboo. I had a lot of trouble with the handwriting, but some letters were written with a typewriter, including the letter Irmgard's father wrote to Emilie's father, asking his permission to marry Emilie. It was eloquent and talked of love and fate."
The trip to Ulm was filled with moments that were utterly miraculous. Sitting on my great-aunt's balcony in a small town in Germany with Kathleen, catching up on life, was one such moment. Reading the letters was also incredible. I'm trying to convince Tante Irmgard of the importance of scanning the letters so that we have them on file should anything happen--the collection is enormous, and in the unlikely event of something happening to them, the loss would be devastating to my family. Besides, I would love to translate them someday. Who knows, maybe I'll even write a book...
When we went up to the attic to put the letters back, we found other treasures. Irmgard tried on a top hat we got out of a very old-looking hat box, and I saw the dollhouse my grandma's older sister used to play with when she was a child. I also found another collection of letters I will have to read someday: the letters my own grandmother wrote to Irmgard when she moved to the United States as a nineteen-year-old, engaged to my grandfather, a US soldier stationed there after the war. Who, as it turns out, owned the only white jaguar in the entire town of Ulm. I bet that caused quite a stir in its day...
This weekend, I was able to literally reach out and touch my family's past, and it left me aching to know more. Both Irmgard and Gerhard are filled with stories of life in Germany during the war, and are willing to share them with me. The letters beckon me back. There's no question about it: I have to go back to Ulm, soon. Falling asleep on the fold-out bed in the guest room Saturday night, I was ready to move in--move into the house my grandmother lived in as a girl, the house my own mother spent her summers in during her childhood. It's such a beautiful old house, and with so many memories. I've got to go back.
I am now officially employed in Germany. Well, actually it's pretty unofficial. In fact, some might even call it an "under the table" job. But since it's only going to last for the remainder of my time here (two months), I think that's okay.
A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from a woman who read the babysitting ad I had put up in a local kindergarten. (The sign, as it turns out, has only resulted in one evening of babysitting, but it has proven useful in other ways.) The woman already had a babysitter, but was wondering if I would be interested in working in the small B&B she and her family own in Regensburg. I was caught completely off guard, but sputtered out in poor over-the-phone German that I would think about it and call her back. I then of course googled the hotel immediately to find out what I could about "Castle Hotel Regensburg." Incidentally, the site that that link will take you to is through Booking.com, a website I highly recommend for booking hotels in Europe (so far I've used it to book rooms in several Italian cities, as well as in Prague and Munich, and everything has turned out brilliantly). After perusing the photos and guest reviews, I decided that this was a fantastic example of something great just falling right into my lap.
My 'interview' consisted of the adorable hotel owner, Angelika, showing me the rooms, the kitchen, and the breakfast area and asking how much I would like to make an hour. She was thrilled that I was interested, because the woman who has been running breakfast for years just finished her masters degree in social work and will be leaving in June to become a criminal psychologist.
So far I've only worked two mornings (my mom and Natalie's visit was the week after I met Angelika), but I love it already. There are only eight rooms at the hotel, so breakfast is pretty low-stress. My duties include setting the tables, making coffee, laying out the breakfast spread, scrambling eggs (upon request), loading the dishwasher, and (my favorite) washing out the yogurt cups so that they can go in the recycle. Beginning June 10th (when Sabine, the breakfast-girl-turned-social-worker leaves), I will probably work most mornings from about 7 to 10:30. I'm an early riser and only have afternoon classes, so it's a perfect fit!
Since we knocked out the two biggest sites in Prague the previous day (Jewish Quarter & Prague Castle), we used the next day to familiarize ourselves with some of the finer offerings of the tourist bureau. We began the day with a driving tour of the city and castle - in a cream-colored, eighty-year-old car with a Czech driver named Lenny. As far as touristy activities go, this one is at the top of my list for best ideas ever (on par with a gondola ride in Venice). Though some of Lenny's historical facts became hard to hear over the sound of the engine, we thoroughly enjoyed rambling along the cobblestones and being the subject of lots of photographs taken by impressed men of all ages. (We're pretty sure they were more impressed by the car than its three foxy female passengers, though.)
For lunch, we took another of the Frenchman's suggestions and went to a pub off of Wenceslas Square for a hearty Czech meal. My mother had been lamenting the fact that all we had done since being in Prague was eat "foo-foo French meals," and had yet to try anything resembling Eastern European fare. Despite her initial excitement at the prospect of some goulash and a cold Czech beer, her mild dislike of both meat and heavy dishes won out in the end. We each ordered a different take on the traditional stewed pork, potato dumplings, and cabbage, and let's just say we think we figured out why Czech food hasn't yet joined the ranks of international culinary overlords (think Thai, Indian, Mexican). After lunch, we strolled back into the main part of town and checked out a few of the garnet shops Prague is so famous for. In fact, I'm the proud new owner of a small garnet ring, and Natalie of a garnet necklace. As we stepped out of the shop and into the main square, we practically bumped into a team of seven-foot-tall Chinese basketball players, all wearing matching red jumpsuits and taking pictures of themselves in front of the big clock. In Chinese, I asked one of them if he would be in a picture with me. He answered in Chinese, and then did a double-take before gesturing to all of his friends that I was speaking to him in Chinese (as if I couldn't understand him). We all had a good laugh, and then went on our separate ways. Sigh.
City tour in 1930s automobile? Check. Czech meal (complete with Czech beer)? Check. Garnet shopping? Check. Nap time? Czech. Uh, check. After we put our feet up for a bit, we headed back down into the Old Town Square for a good, old-fashioned Italian meal. Having sampled the local cuisine, we felt entitled to a greek salad, a thin crust pizza, and a bowl of homemade pasta at Pizza U Minuty, a restaurant just off the main square. Normally I try to avoid the places catering specifically to tourists, but we were in need of simplicity and a familiar meal (that wouldn't cost us an arm and a leg). This place really did the trick. After dinner (which ended with my all-time favorite dessert, Tiramisu), we walked back across the Charles Bridge one last time and were stalked by a crazy man wearing headphones (who, as it turns out, was not at all opposed to public urination). We turned in for an early night, resting up for our six hour journey back to Munich.
...on the city of Prague. Or the feast of Stephen. But I like my version. It's more applicable to my own experience, anyway.
If I were to recommend one set of travel books to you, it would be the Frommer's Day by Day guides (you can check them out here). So far, I've used them in London, Paris, Florence/Tuscany, and Prague, and I'm sure I'll buy them in the future for other cities as well. The books come with both a fold-out map on the front cover and a full-sized map in a nifty little pocket at the back, and provide more than enough information about how to see a city (including self-guided tours, where to stay, dining advice, key phrases, and historical 101s) in a book small enough to slip into a purse (or a large coat pocket) without having it weigh you down. We referred to the Prague Day by Day guide... daily. And it really came in handy on our first morning, as we were able to follow along in the book and walk the entire Jewish Quarter, reading about each stop along the way. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Spanish Synagogue.
After a refreshing lunch at a nice French bistro (complete with snooty waiters) we headed down to Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge, where Natalie bought a lovely painting of the Prague cityscape. We then made our way by foot to the castle (which involves quite a bit of uphill meandering and some 200 stairs - well worth it for the view). By this time it was 4:00, so we decided to buy the reduced-fare tickets that would get us into the Royal Palace (seriously impressive), St. George's Basilica (built in the 10th century!), and Golden Lane (tourist trap). The interior of the castle complex (which is the largest of its kind in the world) is certainly breathtaking, if only for its sheer immensity. But I have to admit that I prefer the castle seen from afar - from the Charles Bridge, perhaps, lit up by a sunset and gazing regally down upon the city like its rulers must have done long ago. (Wenceslas?)
We had dinner at Kampa Park, a very nice restaurant right at the foot of the Charles Bridge (we saw it from up there earlier in the day and decided we had to check it out). The pumpkin soup with walnut ravioli was a winner among all three of us, but after two fancy dinners in a row, we were ready for a change of pace on day three.
Last Monday, my mom and her friend Natalie came to visit me in Regensburg. We had a lovely three days there together before heading off to visit Prague, a long-time travel dream of my mother's.
The four and a half hour train ride from Regensburg to Prague was, well, not exactly what we had bargained for. Having lived in Germany for the past few months and knowing what I do about regional (not ICE) trains, I knew that our transportation wouldn't be quite top-notch. We did splurge for the first-class tickets, which got us a whopping five seats to a compartment (instead of the usual six) and a skinny rectangle of aged carpeting (instead of the usual cracked linoleum). Our direct line to Prague was destined for adventure, however. About two hours into the ride, our train came to a screeching halt in a small Czech town just across the border from Germany. A bellowing female (I think) member of the train staff knocked loudly on our compartment door, gesturing for us to get out. In very broken German (English was a no-go) she said that a truck had overturned on ze tracks and vee vould haff to take zee bus to anahzer station. Zhen vee could get on anahzer train und go to Praha. So the three of us lugged all of our suitcases off that train with the other passengers and clambered up an unpaved road in the rain to board large buses in an unfamiliar land, heading toward an unknown destination with people who didn't speak our language. We were sure, of course, that we were being sold into the Eastern European sex trade.
After twenty-five minutes of driving along twisting back roads, listening to Linkin Park blasting out of the bus's Communist-era radio and laughing nervously at our predicament, we arrived at the promised "next station" and boarded the train. The train left immediately (what if we had stopped to go to the bathroom? There was no process to make sure all passengers were safely transferred from the first train to the bus to the second train).
We arrived in Prague about an hour later than expected, and set off to find a taxi that would take us to the Prague Castle Hotel. The first cab driver we talked to assured us he had good prices and a meter, and after we schlepped everything down into his car and buckled up, he held up a laminated card (his 'meter') that said he would charge us 980 Czech crowns to get to our hotel. That is just under $50. Luckily we knew better, because Natalie's guidebook had warned us of cab scams and told us that a cab shouldn't cost any more than 200 crowns inside the city. We had better luck with the next guy, and arrived at the hotel around 4pm for just 186 crowns. Not too shabby.
That night we had dinner at Alchymist, an upscale restaurant recommended to us by our French compartment-mate from the train (who lives in Prague). The decor was certainly impressive (think candelabras, mirrored mosaics, lots of velvet) but the Mediterranean fusion food didn't wow me. Maybe I've just been spoiled by my mom's saffron rice. :)