EUROTREK PART SEBEN
GERMANY AND HOME AGAIN
(Originally sent to Friends Wed, 25 Sep 1996)
After plodding so many pages, dear reader, I applaud your tenacity. In this posting I offer our final round of travels, a side point about travelling with children, and sign off with a renewed attitude towards the strange country I now make my home.
BAVARIA--CALL IT BAR-VARIA
We took a direct train from Venice to Munich, which left at 1:30 in the afternoon and arrived around 8:30 pm. A night train was possible, but hey, we wanted to leave Venice ASAP on a direct train--no changes, no threat of losing our compartment or having to lug things around again. Besides, we were going via Innsbruck, Austria, so we were bound to see some Alps in the daylight.
What could go wrong?
I know, I know--I'm setting this story up to make it sound like it became another ordeal. Maybe a sudden blizzard came up and froze the train to the rails (that actually did happen to me in England on my birthday, January 13, 1987). Maybe we fell through the crust of the earth. Maybe some Abu Nidal terrorists took over our train and started collecting passports and executing the Americans...
Nah. Nothing of the sort. We had a fine journey through some interesting mountains, left a sunny Venice, sojourned through a grey Innsbruck, and arrived at a wet and sullen Munchen Hbf exactly on time. Now we had to try and download whatever smattering of Deutsche we knew, get some change for the phone, and call our hosts up to tell them we'd arrived.
I walked up to a local kiosk and asked the man there for some change. No, this wasn't a Paki shop, and he didn't say that I had to buy something. No, he didn't say our money was invalid (actually--my 10-Mark note was out of circulation now, but I had a twenty leftover from Koln). No, he wasn't out of phone cards (he did suggest I buy one, since a coin phone can be hard to find, but it was 20 marks and I was only making a local call). I got my change with no bullshit. Moreover, with Anna on my front reaching for the pfennigs on the counter, the man said, "She looks hungry. Here, take some bananas." He gave us two bananas gratis and I almost bust a gut, bowing in reflex surprise. We were definitely out of Venice.
No, I did find a coin phone and no, it wasn't choked with coins. And yes, I did get through first time. We got directions on what local line to take, but missed the next train. No, it wasn't the last one--we only had to wait 40 minutes. No, we didn't have any money for dinner, but there were vending machines selling Mars Bars. Yes, our host was waiting for us when we arrived. Not everything I do leaves a series of hassles in the wake.
Our final hosts were dad's childhood friends, Dieter and Ingeborg, from a city about 100 kms outside of Munich. They had dinner waiting for us when we arrived. Wine was followed by Schnapps in quick succession, and we then got shown to our room--a whole floor to ourselves--with shower, sauna, and bottles of sherry in the bedroom. And no mosquitoes. Yeah, this was luxury.
Dieter had certainly made his mark. He makes connections between buyers and sellers of big things, like million-dollar factories in China to Swedes. He gets paid on commission, which amounts to good money when you're dealing in figures that size. He had only recently graduated from the rat race and left his salaryman position for self-employment, much like I have. He and I sat down for a good chat about the ethics of business, about whether it was worth selling poison or razing rainforests just because somebody else would profit from it if you didn't.
Heavy world-view stuff aside, the most important thing we shared with the Hartmanns was children. They have their own daughter, Angelika, who is now a teen; she would soon be leaving the nest. So Ingeborg in particular enjoyed Amy and Anna as much as possible--so much, in fact, that she shooed us out of the house so she could be a mother of toddlers again. Fine with us--Aya and I got a nice day walking around Munich. It felt very disorienting--it was only the second time since the birth of Amy that we'd had a day alone without the children.
Back home that night Dieter and I had an interesting tete-a-tete. "You were always a quiet child," he said of me over our second Schnapps. "Except when you read those bloody English comics. Then you would say the most incredible things which Herbert Sanders [my dad] had to explain away as jokes."
He was referring to the time we first met, circa 1972. I was a lad of seven and never far away from a comic book. Give me one and I disappear. I had gotten turned on to British comics shortly before, which in those days were either Punch-and-Judy style violent humor, sports (every football team went to Wembley), or war. The British army (hardly ever the Americans) kicking the crap out of the Germans (most popular character name--Hauptmann Teufel) or the Japanese (most popular character names--Tojo, or Ah So). I learned great words like "gott in himmel!", "schnell, schweinhunt!", "ve haf vays of meking you talk, dummkopf", and "banzai". Probably more Krauts and Japs died over forty years of these comics than in both real wars.
So here we were in Davos, Switzerland, 1972, for New Year's, meeting my first German-speakers before the era of Schwarzenegger. Doktor Viktor and his wife "Frau", and son Dieter and Ingeborg, 25 years younger, talking loud after a few Schnapps and making jokes about shit and sex. At midnight, I watched a Swiss fireworks display, including a slow-burning flare leftover from the war, and I heard about how Swiss keep guns in the house and have compulsory military training.
On our way home, Dieter asked me if I wanted to visit Germany.
"No," I retorted.
"I'm afraid the Germans are going to start another war!" In earshot of most of the German party guests.
"You weren't so afraid of Germany next time you came," added Dieter.
No wonder. In the late Seventies I was thrilled by future fiction comics (Judge Dredd, the blockbuster Hollywood movie, was still just a fledgling comic strip in 2000AD Comic), and this time the bad guys were the "Volgans" (future Soviets), rogue robots, or "Geeks" (insectoid aliens). Plus Dieter had the best collection of porno mags this side of Hamburg--a great new way to keep the randy teen occupied. Whenever the adults wanted to get rid of me, all Dieter had to do was mention that my bedroom just happened to have a basketful of Playboy back issues. Goodbye Dave. I reemerged only to eat.
We kept up one tradition at least on this visit--the eating part. We ate. And ate. And ate. And what delectible foods there were! In a traditional Bavarian restaurant we had pancake soup for starters, followed by schmaltz (no, not Yiddish "chicken fat" or English "melodrama")--animal fat with bits of bacon or something or another spread upon brown bread and choked down. The main course was roast meats from three different animals in a skillet atop incredibly delicious potato noodles. Apple cake and ice cream for dessert. We could see why the heart rates are so high here.
As far as I can remember, we hit nothing in Dieter's BMW going home. And before we said goodnight, Dieter pointed out that there was a recent Playboy in English by his desk.
"Be my guest." I snuck a peek. No Asians aboard this issue, alas, but there were some great articles...
GERMAN AND JAPANESE GADGETS
Another instructive night came after a few draft beers (from a mini-keg in the fridge) and Schnapps from shot glasses made of ice.
"How do you make these glasses?" I asked.
"Can't tell you. German technology. If I did, the Japanese would copy it and sell it to me cheaper."
It was from one of Dieter's gadgets--a shot-glass-ice-maker, I'm sure. Dieter is a man of gadgets, with a house full of them. The dinner table costing 5000 marks (at approx. 2 marks to the dollar) had built in toaster-space, grills, warmers, electric sockets, fold-outs, whatever. If you needed something, it was somewhere stowed, and once you sat down you didn't need to retrieve anything from the kitchen again. The sitting room had a water fountain illuminated from below, for those who aren't annoyed by dripping water. The stereo had speakers the size of a man, with spare bass boosts the size of suitcases in back. There was a model train set in the garden below--with cable car above powered by electric winch. Even the bar soap had a piece of metal embedded inside--so it would stick to a magnet protruding from a wall, and not get all soggy in a dish.
And the clocks. Dieter loved clocks; clocks on every wall, in every room, even a "light clock" you project on the wall in case the room was dark. There was always something ticking and chiming (some of the antiques gained or lost time, so the fifteen-minute interval sound-offs had few gaps between them). Finally the consumer electronics, be it the four-inch armchair TV by Dieter's recliner, or the multiple-function FAX machine downstairs in his office--were often made in Japan.
"I'd buy German, but Japanese is cheaper..."
And as I watched my waist expand I waited for a body-fat-burning gadget. We had a constant cycle of English breakfasts, sausages or something quick for lunch, sightseeing whenever we felt like it (they took us to a Bavarian church where they have skeletal remains on open display, and Ludvig's Neuschwanstein Castle--the inspiration for the famous "Disney castles"), beer, wine and Schnapps for dinner, and a side order of fondue on top. I dreaded hopping on the scales back home. Diet would start once we headed for Zurich.
And that's just what we did on September 5. Last train trip to Zurich, Switzerland. Ah, let's draw this to a close--I was probably as sick of travel as the reader is by now of this long story. We waved goodbye and were in Zurich, four hours later. There we boarded a Korean Air flight for Seoul and then home. Thus finished nearly 45 days on the road.
CLOSING: TWO GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
ONE: TRAVELLING WITH CHILDREN
Along the way a number of people, particularly Aldwonker in England, kept saying how brave (or crazy) we were for travelling with children aged one and nearly three. Accidents, illnesses, kidnappings, any number of things could happen.
But y'know, it wasn't all that bad. Sure, having tykes in tow meant we weren't going to be looking at the Louvre, say, or dodging the bulls in Pamplona. Sure, we had to carry a lot more luggage, and we always had to have diapers and bottled water, no matter what the cost.
But hey, we got a lot of breaks precisely because we were with kids.
I have already recounted the banana incident in Munich station above. Also the kindess of the nun outside Koln Cathedral. What I never had a chance to slide into the bigger stories was the general reception we got from perfect strangers. In Paris, old couples would come up to us in the subway to coo and give Amy and Anna peaches. In southern France and Spain, fellow train-riders played with our kids for a few hours while we napped. In Italy, even hostile hosteliers saw us as needing a family room and gave us a discount. More than once when the train conductor came by to check our tickets, I didn't even have to open my Eurail pass; nah, you're okay--hey, a family man isn't going to defraud the railways.
And even when we didn't have enough money to pay the bill, things happened:
On a full SNCF train from Brussels to Paris, where we had no choice but to sit in First Class, the conductor only charged us a Second-Class supplement, and took Belgian currency that was out of circulation.
On the train from Bilbao to Barcelona, where we took facing seats that weren't ours (we could only got two seats reserved since the children weren't paying), the conductor told us not to move--he'd reseat people instead.
Before the harrowing taxi ride between stations in Barcelona, people saw we were in a hurry and let us jump the queue. And just about everywhere we went, be it Anna's smile or Amy's gregariousness, people would smile back and clear the way.
The only places we didn't get breaks or smiles were England, where people seem to expect children to be adults at all times ("children should be seen and not heard"--when children at times will of course be grumpy and getting underfoot), and the Hungarian Consulate in Milano. But these people were such outliers that the contrast was that much more shocking.
In retrospect it wasn't all that bad. The children cost nothing on the trains, were cut-price on the planes, and were perfectly happy with simple food so long as they didn't have to wait for it. And they adjusted to surroundings faster and faster each time. Now they seem so much more, um, worldly than their counterparts back home.
I'd do it all over again knowing then what I know now.
TWO: A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON JAPAN
Over the years, as you can probably tell by the tone of this web page, I have made it a hobby to fume at Japan for its protected economy and high prices. I went to Europe expecting things to be cheaper and our money to stretch farther, what with the high yen and all that.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that it ain't so. Europe isn't all that much cheaper, and some things are indeed far higher quality AND lower priced back in Japan.
Take for example food. Sure, vegetables will kill your budget in Japan, the land of the five-dollar apple. But eating out was cheaper in Sapporo, often by a wide margin, due to European VAT (value-added tax) and service charges (call it tipping, whatever, but it meant you couldn't trust a menu price). And the portions are bigger in places I'd eat in Japan than they were in France or Italy.
Could all be a tourist trap dilemma. Or it could also be that people are taxed more heavily over there. Germany, England, and France all have a high VAT--Germany starts taking away half your income if you make over 100,000 Marks! Now there are reunification taxes, membership in the EU dues, the merging of the markets, screwing around with money values and trade hindrances, what have you. And prices are rising while the going's good.
Or baby goods. When bottle nipples wore out, we had to buy local, but all of them leaked--unlike the Japanese ones. We bought diapers in every country we were in; the best were the British, the worst the French, and the cheapest the Spanish (Spain was by far the cheapest country because you can buy in bulk). Nothing came near to measuring up to the Japanese goods in terms of quality, and they weren't cheap enough to make you rationalize it away.
Or gasoline. Britain and Denmark were about the same as Japan. Germany and France were actually MORE than Japan, now that Japan's deregulated it's fuel market and Sapporo offers regular unleaded for 95 yen a liter. Sure, in America it's close to that price for four times that much volume, but that's America.
In fact, I realized that instead of Japan being the outlier in terms of expense, AMERICA is in fact the outlier in terms of cheapness. If you don't mind going really low-end in terms of quality, America is a paradise for the bargain buyer. Europe, in the throes of great changes, seems to have an electorate more tolerant of taxes and trade barriers. And it shows.
So I went back to Japan with a fresh attitude towards living there. Europe is nice, quaint, full of life and variety, but not what I'm used to anymore. I missed a convenience store with a good rice ball, set of noodles, sushi or fresh salad. I missed food that didn't sit all oily in your stomach for an hour or two. I missed being in a country where I could communicate effortlessly.
I knew what I wanted, and at times felt in a bit of a snit if it wasn't readily available. I realized I was more used to a Japanese lifestyle, and was ready by the end just to get back and get on with life.
Guess I'm getting old.
Sated in Sapporo