Monday, August 30, 2010

Ich Bin Ein Amerikaner? Travels in Germany and Italy, Part I.

Hohenschwangau Vista

This is a somewhat delayed writeup of my visit to Germany and Italy last year (8/2009)[i].

Last year, at the gracious invitation of our German friends Hellmut and Doris, my wife and I sojourned over to “Old Europe” to attend their wedding. The plan was to fly into Nuremberg, party like rock stars at the wedding[ii], jaunt down the autobahn through Bavaria into Austria and the Alps, and then on to lounge around Lake Garda, in Italy for a few days. While we knew from previous jaunts in Europe that English was the de facto lingua franca[iii] in any towns with a horse population exceeding one, we were still a bit curious about traveling through three different countries without speaking a word of any of their respective languages. [iv]

Nuremberg streetscape B&W

We are led by Hellmut through Nuremberg in pursuit of beer and brats.

We were met in Nuremberg after a long haul flight over the Atlantic by the Groom-to-be, who was more than gracious in showing us around and taking care of vital, pressing needs (i.e. obtaining samples of German beer and Nuremberg bratwurst asap). Hellmut is a friend and former colleague from the University of Delaware. He’d been out to see us several times, including an unfortunate stint during Hurricane Ike. We were glad to visit them in return. We spent the rest of the day touring around Nuremberg.

Nuremberg architectureNuremberg plazaNuremberg Castle flowerboxesNuremberg Castle archwayNuremberg Castle doorNuremberg Cathedral

Images from Nuremberg, Nuremberg Castle, and Nuremberg Cathedral

Like many other European cities, Nuremberg is a charming, if sometimes eclectic, mix of old and new. The German stereotype of clean, efficient cities, however, stood the test of close inspection.

The next day we picked up our rental car after a hotel breakfast that was ludicrously heavy on meats and cheeses[v]. Some quick readjustment to driving stick[vi], and we got on our way to the ceremony, in a picturesque old church high in a hill city in the countryside. [vii]


The wedding took place in a church older than our country.

Even though we had little idea what was being said during the ceremony, it was very beautiful. They could not have picked a more picturesque place to get married.

Wedding party

The wedding party against a Bavarian landscape

The reception, held at an equally posh resort with amazing vistas was equally fantastic. If there’s one thing Germans truly excel at, it’s putting on a good feast[viii] The food never stopped coming. It may have been the (admittedly large quantities of) good German beer, but it seemed every moment I turned around, a new table of food had appeared. I was sort of worrying at this point that, if this is what they were accustomed to, they may have felt a bit puckish at the relatively sparser offerings at our wedding!

Table settingReception settingthe Bride

My fondest memory from the reception was being honored with taking part in the German tradition in which the bride is “abducted” and hidden, and the groom must scour the countryside looking for her. The groom and a few hardy souls have to jaunt from pub to pub looking for clues to his bride’s location, imbibing the local specialty where applicable. A couple stops and some seriously amazing hazelnut schnapps later, we caught up with the bride, at which point Hellmut was required to sing for her favor. Set against a backdrop of beautiful winding Bavarian roads and picturesque towns, it really was something from a movie.

Departing in Style

The party didn’t just last into the night…it plowed, nay, Blitzkrieged through the night into the wee hours of the morning. I held my own as long as I could, but these Germans were pros. We started partying at 3PM, and I finally had to bow out at 3am[ix]. I believe they were still up and at it at 6 in the morning. All in all a party to remember, including overcoming language barriers with drunken dj’ing/dancing. There was one uncomfortable moment when a relative was giving a speech to the assembled dinner party, and pointed the mic at me, asking a question in German. When no one immediately intervened, I stammered out the only German I could come up with…”Ich bin ein Amerikaner”.[x] Regardless, a good time was had by all.

Autobahn landscape

Bavarian Landscape along the autobahn

The next morning came pretty hard. The plan was for my wife and I to tour for a day or so through Bavaria, before meeting up with the bride and groom for a vacation through Austria and down to Italy.[xi] This involved a cruise down a section of autobahn. I alternated between being intensely jealous of my wife as she put the Audi through its paces across a storybook Bavarian landscape of dark forests and towns of picturesque stone buildings, and being somewhat less than copacetic with the twists and turns, given the debauchery of the night before.

Our intended destination was Fuschen, and Neuschwanstein Castle. Neuschwanstein is the epitome of the storybook-style German castles. It was the model for the Dinsey castle, and its towering spires are unmistakeable. Already in the foothills of the Alps, the scenery was incomprehensible[xii]. We toured the various castles at the site, and then found a quaint little bed and breakfast to stay the night[xiii].

Hohenschwangau CastleHohenschwangau Wood and MetalworkNeuschwanstein VistaHohenschwangau Castle FountainNeuschwanstein bridgeNeuschwanstein

Hohenschwangau Castle and the Alpsee



Images from Neuschwanstein, from top: Hohenschwangau castle, Wood and Metalwork, Vista from Neuschwanstein,Hohenschwangaue Castle Fountain, Alpine Bridge, Hohenschwangau Castle and the Alpsee (lake), Neuschwanstein Castle.

The next day we met back up with the bride and groom, and set out for the Alps (to be continued in Part II, in which I climb an Alp)

[i] Like a kid whose eyes are too big for their stomach, I tend to take far more photographs than I can easily edit. Our friends Nina and Seth can attest to this, as they're still waiting for pictures I took on a Killarney trip in 2008 to be edited and posted. I click away like there’s no tomorrow, but tend to be intimidated by the sheer mass of pictures that produces, and editing gets delayed.

[ii] Mission accomplished. Mission so accomplished that if they gave an award for putting in a good showing against superior German beer drinkers, I would at the very least get an honorable mention citation. Also, as it turned out driving through the winding autobahn the morning after, probably a Purple heart. I took one for the team, America. You’re welcome.

[iii] Latin for “Language we need to speak because Americans are as rich in tourist dollars as they are dumb about languages.”

[iv] My wife is mostly fluent in Spanish, and I am fluent in 1st year French, which is to say I can ask them where the market is, and describe a strawberry’s relative position to a table. Additionally, we are both versed in Latin, or in other words, we have no applicable language skills. Unless, of course, a language impasse involved a strategic decision of strawberry placement on, above, or around tables.

[v] Germany knows how to do breakfast. Large meat platters, good cheese, freshly baked breads, and all the streudel you could ever hope to want. Which, in my case, is an appreciable amount of streudel.

[vi] We had purposefully asked for an automatic (which is a bit of a special order in Germany, apparently), but they only had a manual Audi when we got there. Luckily my wife drives standard, though often apprehensively. It was only later that I realized this turn of events cheated me out of driving on the infamous autobahn.

[viii] “one thing” is a bit of a misstatement. Germans excel at pretty much everything.

[ix] By that point, I was thoroughly soused, had danced enough to break a shoe, and couldn’t keep my eyes open.

[x] I think the reaction was somewhat akin to when a little kid says something that walks the fine line between precocious and disturbing. There was faint laughter and what I’m sure was internal confirmation of American stereotypes. Apparently she had assumed we spoke some German. Silly lady, we’re Americans. best we’ll simply speak English slower and more loudly.

[xi] It may seem odd that we were accompanying the bride and groom on what was ostensibly their honeymoon. This should be considered against the average German vacation allotment. Their weeklong sojourn with us was just a “minor trip”. Their REAL honeymoon was to happen later. Oh those crazy Europeans and their lifestyle-friendly vacation benefits.

[xii] Especially to those of us who have spent 8 years as flatlanders in Houston.

[xiii] By the time we finished the day, most restaurants were closed. We found one that was open, but they were not serving hot food. Thankfully, it seems to be against the law in German not to have ridiculous volumes of meat and cheese platters available at any given time, so we feasted, regardless.

No comments: