Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gutentag, Auf Wiedersehen, and Gesundheit

Unlike my European friends who speak two or three languages fluently, much of my practical education in foreign language came from watching American television in the 1970’s. I can thank “Miss Piggy” for my 10 words of French, and I can thank “Sergeant Schultz” from Hogan’s Heros for my 5 words of German. Limited though my German vocabulary may be, last week I was determined to use all five words during my trip to the Black Forest.

Germany, what a large country! Good thing it’s legal to drive as fast as your little car will take you. Walt LOVES to drive there, go figure.  I found that driving was a white knuckle experience along those “autobahn” highways. I love to go fast and all, but if I were going 100 mph, the cars flying up behind me and flashing their high beams were going an easy 140.  At one point I had to painfully pry my hands out of their death grip on the steering wheel.  It was time to find a slower lane.

Despite our speed, it seemed to take forever to get to our little farm in the Black Forest. Maybe this was because I was once again traveling with small children. Audrey is going through a phase (ok, I hope it’s a phase) where she finds out how to annoy a person and then makes a sport out of it. Her victim this trip was Jordan.  Poor thing.

The farm we called home for the week was a lovely place. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, up a long winding one-lane road, sits the most picturesque little dairy farm. God bless Gisela, the farm’s co-owner. In addition to milking the twenty cows twice each day, she also manages four guest houses, offers breakfast daily, and bakes all of her own bread for the week in an ancient wood burning oven. Oh, and she makes her own jam.

The farm was in a great location and offered a cozy and relaxed place for the kids to explore. The barn kitties were such a huge hit that I’m lucky I didn’t find one in a suitcase when we got home. Audrey and Jack both learned how to milk a cow. Jordan decided kitties were safer than cows. Lord knows, they smell better.

Gisela’s father would come to the barn each night at milking time to regale each of us with his stories of the old days. He was born on this very farm in the 1930’s and had no doubt seen a world of change from pre-Nazi Germany to the present day. I would have loved to sit him down and hear about his experiences; he was dying to tell me. But as I speak only English, and he spoke only German, we were both stuck. I did try to impress him with my dazzling German linguistics, but there is only so far that five words will take you.

Our first morning out, we hiked to the Cloister Ruins at Allerheiligen by way of the Allerheiligen Waterfall.  The one kilometer hike started below in the valley and followed the small river through the forest to the top of the mountain . It was easy to imagine the fairytales of the Black Forest as we climbed the damp and mossy trail along the falling water. Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, or Red Riding Hood could have been just past the next turn in the path.

The Cloister Ruins were dramatic. A full half of a church still stands. Built at the end of the 12th century, it was struck by lightning and destroyed in 1804. Jack was amusing himself standing in a large stone trough-like thing on the cloister floor. I smiled and asked him what he thought this was. He guessed, “a watering trough for horses?” He jumped about a mile when I told him it was a sarcophagus. Ewwww.

Everywhere we went, I continued to drop my little gem stones of German. I’d smile and offer a passing stranger a bright and merry “Gutentag”. I was so Continental! I was so sophisticated! They would respond with some mysterious pleasantries, and I would nod knowingly.

I’m hopeless. I remind myself of the young men and women on the streets of Beijing that would cross the street just to greet me with a friendly, “Hello!”; this being their one and only word of English.

Maybe it’s ok to be an unsophisticated American speaking only English with my broad flat “A’s”. I think it is more important to try, to reach out, to make eye contact, and attempt politeness no matter what the language. Bridging the gap between an American mom on holiday and an elderly farmer from the foothills of the Alps may be as simple as a smile and a nod. To be open to the world and accepting of any experiences it might bring me, this is a lesson that transcends language. It is the reason I travel.  And maybe, just maybe, it is a gift I might bring to my children.

Friday, October 15, 2010


The bike shed at the school
Who knew that it would be a bike to change my life. The travel, the language, the history here in Holland has all been wonderful, but the biking has struck me to the core.

My first morning in this house, I heard them coming: the disembodied voices of school students laughing and talking. Naively, I could not understand how they could be coming so quickly. Then, out of the early morning mist, they passed me, 20 at a time, on bicycle. Lean and fresh and beautiful, these children bike to school in a country where public school busses do not exist.

On Sunday mornings, elderly men and women put on their Sunday hats and coats and bike to church. They ride gracefully, elegantly pushing off with their right foot while standing with their left foot on the pedal.  They then then ease onto the seat in one effortless movement.

The bikers here smile for no apparent reason other than the joy of being alive.

Moving bike for hire in Haarlem
The Dutch will bike carrying almost anything. Sometimes I think they challenge themselves to see what they can bring home by bike and then brag about it to their friends. “Of course I bike to class with my yoga ball.” Or, “That 2 meter tree I just planted? I brought it home from the nursery by bike. Took me a while to figure it out, but I got here.” Maybe it is understood that you would first work out how to bring some impossibly large item from point A to point B by bike. Is it an admission of defeat for a Dutchman to use a car?

I recently saw a man on a bike towing a small trailer for his golf clubs. Now there is a dedicated sportsman. By the way, it was pouring rain.

Friends on a Sunday Outting
Business men in suits, soldiers in camouflage, and policemen in uniform pass me on the bike path each morning. In the afternoons, I might see an officer riding home with a bouquet of flowers for his sweetheart strapped to the book rack of his bike .

Lovers of all ages hold hands as they bike side by side.

When I first arrived I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years. Now it’s hard to remember a time when I drove a car.

My Beloved Bakfiets
 My bakfiets seats four children, or two children and five days worth of groceries. It is my minivan. I prefer my bakfiets to the car in every circumstance and weather, except high wind or ice. The beautiful thing about this bike is the more weight you put in the box, the better it rides. Really.

The gas station I passed yesterday offered regular unleaded gasoline for 1.49 euro per liter. At today's exchange rate, this works out to $8.10 per gallon. Hmmmmm. Biking is good for more than just my health.

Audrey and I have conversations as we bike from place to place. I point out the animals we pass on our way. Swans, both black and white, swim silently in the canals. Gray herons hide in the reeds. Occasionally we will see a huge stork searching for frogs and snakes in the long grass of a field.   On the bike path to the preschool there is a lovely children’s farm complete with goats, pot-bellied pigs, sheep, and chickens. There is always something to talk about.

Along the path to the beach
Our beach is 5 km away. There are two small parking lots for cars. On a beautiful sunny weekend day, the road to the beach becomes gridlocked. Sometimes the police have to close the road due to traffic. The bike path, on the other hand, is wide, easy, and completely separate from the road. It offers views of the wild and windswept dunes. The scent of roses, horses, and  the sea hangs thick in the air.

My car sits in front of our house collecting sap drippings and pinecones from the blue spruce above it. I smile.

“From my cold dead hands,” my friend Nicky told me when I first arrived. What? I must have missed her meaning.  “They will take my bike from my cold dead hands,” she repeated.

And I understand exactly how she feels.

The Mommy Bikes at the school shed