Darmstadt 2004
Herewith some fragments from my sojourn in glamourous Darmstadt. As it turns out, ‘darms’ in German is the same as ‘derms’ in Afrikaans, so it’s Intestine City. I don’t know the history, though. Goethe was a member of the Darmstadt Society, some kind of social club in the country for Frankfurters. There was a hotbed of Art Nouveau artists and architects in D, where it is known as Jugendstil. Didn’t get to that museum either.. oh well.

The Castle Frankenstein is on a hill just above the German offices, and is now used for corporate meetings. There’s a joke in there somewhere.. The VPs all went and had a bunfight at the Castle, but us lowly worker bees stayed in the office.

On the way over, I had a seat in the middle of the middle row, rather unpleasant. A French family was behind me. The little girl said ‘ooh-la-la!’ when receiving her bribes for keeping quiet on the flight,  I didn’t know the French actually said that, but it was very cute. The nice old lady next to me was reading Dickens and so was I (Dickens in the Everyman editions is excellent for travelling, maximum words per ounce), so we struck up a conversation. Her husband was professor of biology at NY State U, now retired, and they get to travel quite a bit. Neither of us care much for contemporary American novelists, we had a good old time whaling on ‘Cold Mountain’, a book we both thought deeply meretricious. They were off to Vienna, lucky things. Nicole said Vienna was very beautiful.

An unrelated anecdote, which occurs to me as I think of things literary, a rare event these days. I bought the DVD’s of the movie of Lord of the Rings (LOTR, in the argot). In order to pad the movie out, they also include all sorts of interviews, documentaries, etc relating to the making of the movie, the book, etc etc. More information than anyone needs, but there it is. Anyway, I watched an interview with Stanley Unwin, the son of the publisher who first accepted The Hobbit and later LOTR. He told the story of how his father believed the best judge of children’s books was a child, so Stanley used to review MS’s for extra pocket money. He brought out his original review of The Hobbit, and read it out in his reedy old man’s voice. The young Stanley recommended the book highly.

The most striking thing about Germany is that it is European, a vapid observation, but I confess I wasn’t expecting it. There is consideration for the land and aesthetics that isn’t visible in America. Virtually no chain stores, no billboards, hardly any miserably ugly malls scarring the landscape. Darmstadt is 20 minutes from Frankfurt airport, but is a town, no big-city urban feel, rather it feels like itself, a small town. Another 20 minutes and you’re in the country, a pleasant and cultivated country, with castles strung out along the ridges above the road. Couldn’t stand the weather, though.

The morning chorus was wonderful, even in the middle of the city where the hotel is. Tiny little beds, with down comforters (confused the Americans no end) and silly little down pillows that didn’t work at all. I had the windows open the first night, the traffic noise kept up most of the night, but I was awoken by a full chorus of birdsong, plus one sitting on the ledge outside the window and twittering away right in my ear. After a few days I figured out a route to run through the backstreets and reach the Stadtwald. There were miles of trails through the forest, surrounded by birdsong, an occasional hare dashing off through the meadows. It was wonderful, though I never saw another soul on the ten runs I did through there. Very muddy once the inevitable rains began, but fortunately I’d thought to pack clothes for wet weather running.

Everyone smokes, everywhere. The first night we ate at a Mexican restaurant (not my idea) and I counted fourteen tables occupied, with someone smoking at every table except ours. We did have a smoker with us, but he’s very polite about it. The offices were non-smoking which was a relief.

The food was much better than expected. We didn’t do German much, since there was every kind of cuisine to be had. Several Greek places, with real Greeks running them; Italian, with Italians ditto; a Cuban place, run by a Greek, go figure; an Indian place with Indians, which the British recommended to us. There was a contingent of Brits from Derby, the UK branch of Software AG: they said ‘we’re off to have our national dish, curry, at the Lahore Palace' (the Indian place). From them I heard the loo described as ‘the bog’ for the first time since leaving South Africa. They were good company, with that fine British dry understated humour that I didn’t notice until coming to America.. We ate at the Ratskeller a few times. It’s not as bad as it sounds, the Ratshalle is in fact the Town Hall, so the Ratskeller is merely the town cellars. Very pleasant,  again consideration is given to human beings rather than cars, so you sit outside at tables on a pretty cobbled square by the old town hall, drink beer and generally behave as if civilized. One of our party ordered a Frankfurter Ribchen, since we didn’t realize this was a pork chop and not a sausage.. oops. In all the restaurants, you don’t get the bill until you ask for it, so you can sit and converse as long as you like. This was frankly wonderful, most places in America tend to hustle you through the meal, interrupt your conversation with ‘and how’s everything here ??’, then rip the plate away while you’re still toying with the cabbage. Generally the service was excellent too, no surly teenagers calling me 'dude', or oppressed-looking overworked waitresses. Really I did enjoy eating out in Germany. The beer was good as expected. Every square mile of Germany is served by a different brewery, so there’s none of this boring Bud Light monoculture, instead a different good beer to try at every town. One night we went to the Darmstadter Brewery, I had sauerbrauten with dumplings, a couple of five-pound cannonballs of suet, boy did they weigh me down on the morning’s run.

Office observations: in Germany, you can’t fire anyone without going through the Worker’s Council, and you aren’t allowed to fire anyone for performance reasons. The calculation is done based on ‘Social Standing’, that is, how old you are, whether married, how many people depend on you, etc. This seems to me a good thing: for too long the USA has attempted to ignore the reality that an economy exists within a society.

Jetlag was horrible on this trip. Usually I’m over it in a few days, this time it was fully two weeks before I stopped waking up at 2am and lying there staring at the ceiling. I think it’s partly because usually on a trip we’re going on holiday, so don’t have to work: also get to spend a good bit of time outdoors in the sun, and getting some exercise. Whereas here it was work from 8:30 to 6:30 or later, grizzly grey skies most of the time, and minimal exercise.

It was also pleasant not to be sharing the road with the obscene great trucks and SUVs that infest American roads, instead a preponderance of sensible little cars. There really are BMW's doing 200km/hr in the fast lane of the autobahn. I had a little Mercedes A-class, diesel, buzzing along in the slow lane at 140km/h, and those big Mercs and BM's just came whistling by. There are bike paths everywhere through the city on the side of the road; the bike path comes first, then the pavement (sidewalk in American). It’s a bit unnerving at first, until one figures this out. The bikes take right of way, so if they see you in the bike path, they’ll drive straight at you until you leap aside. I could have bought a nice commuter bike from the grocery store, with three speeds, fenders and a basket, for 150 euros. This is about $250 less than it would have cost me to buy a shipping container for my bike and fly it over ($350 for a decent bike box, $100 extra to fly with it). I was quite tempted. There were many bike commuters cruising along, shopping/briefcase in the basket, cigarette in hand. Trams and trains to be had everywhere. We dallied with the idea of catching an overnight train to Paris, but it was quite pricey, and anyway I’ve been to Paris, with the services of a fine tour guide/translator in Nicole: a mad dash there and back with a blurry glimpse of the Eiffel tower in between would have been anticlimactic. I also thought about catching a train to Frankfurt and going to a concert at the Opera. The guide books say the Frankfurt train station is surrounded by the red-light district, as well as assorted drug addicts, plus the opera was 50 euros for the cheap seats, so I didn’t make it.

One morning I went to swim with a training group at the Nordbad swimming pool. I’d hooked up with the swim coach, Annette, via Francois, a French professor of mathematics in Arizona, whom I’ve never met.. We both hang out on the same triathlon forum on the web, Slowtwitch.com, and I’d posted a query there about training in Darmstadt. Lots of kind strangers gave me information - that’s also how I found the Stadtwald trails - and Francois I guess trusted me enough to give me his friend’s name. Annette was very nice, welcomed me, let me work out with her group. I was happy to find Germans don’t swim faster than Americans. I’m usually in the second-from-fast lane here, and in the same lane there (there are 3-5 people in each lane, so it’s helpful if everyone swims at much the same pace). After ten years, I’d eventually succumbed to American prudery, and replaced my liddle Speedo with a generously-cut pair of long swim trunks. These of course immediately identified me as an American in Germany, since everyone else was wearing Speedos. The Nordbad is a 50 meter pool, instead of the 25 yard pool I usually swim in, so it felt luxuriously spacious.

Saw a trout in a stream by the office one day.. There are apparently lots of trout, and canoes to rent, in the streams of the Schwarzenwald, but I didn't get to try that. 40 degrees F and raining on the weekend, plus I had the only car between 4 of us so I couldn't really go rushing off on my own.

Drove down to Strasbourg in France on Saturday, about two hours on the rainy freeway. There was the Festival de Deux Riviers going on there, the Rhine and some other river which we never identified. The gardens were gorgeous, fields of poppies and other flowers for miles, an explosion of colour in the green and the grey. The city streets everywhere are massively confusing, nothing remotely resembling a grid, lots of one-ways: every once in a while you’d find yourself in a street dating from the middle ages, wide enough for a horse cart and not much more. Eventually parked at the hotel of the gendarmes (one misses a lot not knowing the lingo) and found our way back to city center. There were swans on the Rhine, an otherwise unimpressive river at this point. Strasbourg is of course the Alsace-Lorraine, that much-contested piece of ground. Often these days it occurs to me, as the famous song goes, "what a long strange trip it’s been": I remember the dry highveld plains of Africa outside the classroom where we learnt the history of the Alsace-Lorraine; and reading Maupassant stories in French on the Franco- Prussian conflict, particularly one about two bourgeois who went fishing quietly one day and were overtaken by the war. Another day in life and there I was, memory and all, on the real grey streets.

The cathedral at Strasbourg is also Notre Dame, I’d never heard of it before, but it was perfectly astonishing. Seven centuries of craftsmen had worked on it, and it showed. A vast towering building, with every inch elaborated with carvings of saints, devils, gargoyles, and even a few storks. From outside dark, on the inside the stained glass was luminous. There was going to be a Bach mass sung the next morning, Miguel and I were keen to come back and hear it, but we’d already agreed to pick up Terry from the airport. Dang.

We had a little lunch in a café on the square of the cathedral, a croque- monsieur for me (toasted cheese and ham) with a glass of gewurztraminer. Gewurztraminer is the classic wine of the Alsace-Lorraine, and one of my favourite wines. It’s hard to find it made in the proper dry style, mostly the rest of the world makes it as a sweet wine, but this glassful was perfect ,  dry, with the aromas of litchis and rose petals. Delicious. That’s another thing checked off on my life list. Now there’s only ‘driving through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair’, as the song goes; and canoeing the Grand Canyon; and living long enough to see my grandchildren;  though those last two goals may be in conflict, come to think of it.

We shopped in the inevitable souvenir places, then took to the one-way streets again, for an involuntary but protracted tour of the grimier neighbourhoods. First we saw the swans on the river from the right, then doubled back around somehow to get their left profile, before emerging dizzy but triumphant on the road back to the highway. Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament, as well as the Cour des Droits de l'Homme, the court of Human Rights, but we didn’t manage to see any of this.

Back in Germany, we detoured off the autobahn into the Black Forest and went to take the waters at Baden-Baden. It’s much like Aspen, full of the fabulously wealthy and other glossy beautiful people. The baths themselves are three in number: the ancient Roman ones, walled off for the archaeologists and not accessible; an older set of ‘Roman-Irish’ baths; and the newest set, all white marble. In the newest ones, bathing suits are compulsory; in the older ones, forbidden. We tried for the newer ones, but the line was out of the door. So Miguel and I headed over to the older ones, figuring while in Europe, do as the Roman-Irish do.. Miguel is from Venezuela, speaks three languages, so the two of us fancied ourselves more cosmopolitan than American. Ray on the other hand was muttering things about Turkish flophouses, ahem, baths, etc, so we left him behind. Mixed nude bathing, it's a European thing I guess. All shapes and sizes, so there was always a fat hairy guy to contemplate in case of overstimulation.. ahem. Basically one progressed from saunas through showers at various temperatures, into a series of pools of the famous water, then back out through the showers. After all this they let you nap for 45 minutes in the atrium. Wonderfully relaxing. I’d planned on a piece of Black Forest cake and tea, but we’d run out of time. Instead we had Turkish falafel at a hole in the wall somewhere, since everything else was closed for Sunday. Ray had a pizza which apparently was more Turkish than Italian, an unwelcome gustatory experience.

The next day, we picked Terry up at the airport, and drove down to Heidelberg for the day. Miguel was kind enough to spare me the driving, taking over for this day. Heidelberg is your basic tourist mecca, but still worth seeing. We hiked up to the Schloss in the rain, and walked around the city ditto. I wanted to go up to the Philosophenweg, an old vineyard path above the Neckar river, where generations of philosophy professors and students have walked and pondered, but my companions were tired after the 300 steps up to the Schloss, lazy bums.

Next day back to the grind. It nearly killed me typing on a German keyboard. The z and the y are switched, that's not so bad, but the special characters are all somewhere else. For those of us who touch-type, you go rattling merrily along then find what you've typed is unreadable.

On Friday we got out at lunchtime, had a brief planning session in the cafeteria at work, trying to find somewhere to tourist for the afternoon. I wanted to go to the Rhine/Mosel area, but to get there involved crossing the whole of Frankfurt with the rest of the early quitters, so the traffic would have been nasty. Pity, I was looking forward to a little cruise with some wine tasting thrown in. Instead we went to a minor attraction, town called Miltenberg, on the Main river, with a fourteenth-century bishop’s castle and sundry medieval timbered houses. The drive was long but pleasant, through the Odenwald, green hills and forests. We passed some cyclists up one hill, all the drivers actually slowed down and waited until it was safe to pass, most unexpected. Many US motorists regard bicyclists in much the same light as Grandpa Kretzmann did guineafowl, as a sort of sporting target.. I’d just missed seeing a professional bike race in Darmstadt, called Rund um den Henninger Turm, which had several of the world’s best racers in it. It was on the morning of the day I arrived, oh well. 250km in a bit over 5 hours, they average nearly 50km/hr. I can hit 50km/h for about 2 minutes, on the flat, when well rested.

Anyway, once in Miltenberg, which the guidebooks had enthused over as one of the less touristed places, the parking lots were full of vast buses, the pretty river walk was bordered by a crowded busy noisy road. As a tourist I feel like a locust, just one of millions nibbling away at the history we come to see and fail to comprehend, each carrying away our little fragment, leaving nothing behind. Maybe cameras don’t steal the soul, but surely these multitudes of footsteps are wearing something away. It’s impossible to see the objects of tourism as they are: it’s all overlaid with a impenetrable veneer of those thousands of words that the pictures are worth, conflated with one’s natural disdain for all the other tourists: to wall off the world entirely. The churches in particular are depressing, one solitary worshipper lighting a candle, amidst crowds of dully rubbernecking tourists like me. Well. Back in Miltenberg, the timbered houses all had their ground floors renovated, so the upper stories are properly ancient, the street level is occupied by shops selling clothes, spectacles oddly enough, souvenirs, etc.

We wound up in the famous Schnatterloch, cobbled town square in the shade of the double belfry of the bishop’s church, drinking beer of course. When the church bells rang, it was deafening, and seemed to last inordinately long, so we wondered if it was the bells or the beer causing the ringing.

In the evening we drove along the Main, looking for a place with a river view to have dinner. Out on the water, massive barges forged upstream, throwing up deep brown waves, looked like they were plowing a furrow rather than just travelling. On the hillsides, steep terraces of vines climbed up to the edge of forest. Below the road, vegetable gardens and more vines descended in narrow strips to the river. Turkish women in black with headscarves climbed down to their vegetable patches with baskets, an unexpected bit of foreign colour. We detoured through some very uninspiring industrial areas without finding anything attractive. In the end we took some random turn into a neighbourhood, found a sign for an Italian place, followed it down into a culdesac of residential houses with no view whatsoever. But by this time the beer was calling for companionship, and my driving was steadily deteriorating into unsteadiness, so we decided we’d better eat anyhoo. Wasn’t bad, though my gnocchi with gorgonzola were not what I’d hoped, the gorgonzola was the shy retiring type rather the bold blue cheese I’d expected. I did have a glass of Muller-Thurgau here, a wine native to the Rhine (Dr. Muller crossed Riesling with Sylvaner in the town of Thurgau, there you go). I hoped it had been grown locally, but who knows ?

Back to the hotel in the dark, with the sun-roof open to keep a flow of cold air over the driver’s fuzzy little head. Packed up and time to go, as I wrote to Helen, "the sun is actually shining here today, I'm sleeping through the night and I can find the y on the keyboard without thinking too much.. must be time to go home."