A GERMAN BIRTHDAY PARTY
Just got back from a week in Germany. I went down to Weinheim (14
km north of Heidelberg) last weekend for Alf's 44th year birthday
party. Marianne was busy, so I went without a wife--which makes
for another kind of trip, more like my old hard-travellin' days.
Took backpack & trusty old travel-guitar, etc, but didn't
hitchhike like I used to. I only had a week off work, from
Thursday through Wednesday. And besides, it's FREEZING in
January, although the weather was really pretty good--cold but
still and dry. I bought a Sparpreis ticket for the Deutsche
Bundesbahn--the kind where you can hop off & on the train as much
as you want--and went south.
I was looking forward to warming up my half-forgotten German. But
ended up sitting with 2 ladies from Ecuador, who couldn't speak
English, Danish, or German, so I had to translate for them, and spoke
Spanish all the way to Hamburg. Oh well, warmed up that language
instead, which was also good. My German got warmed up later
Hopped off in Hamburg and went around a few hours. I like
Hamburg, when I first came back to Denmark in '84 I had to leave
the country every 3 months to get a new tourist stamp in my
passport, and I usually eneded up spending a few days in Hamburg.
I always stayed at the Youth Hostel in the St Pauli district,
where the infamous Reeperbahn is. That's the scandalous part of
town where the strip clubs are, and Herbertstrasse, that street
where the prostitutes sit on display in their windows. Otherwise
it's also the part of town where there are cheap movies,
resturants, bars, stores, shops and everything is open all night,
unlike "normal" German towns where everything is closed after
5:30 in the evening, so it IS the place to hang out.
But I didn't make it to that part of town this time, my
sparepreis train ticket had some restrictions--I found that I
couldn't use it from after 10:00 Friday morning until Monday, so
I had to get to Weinheim by then. And it was Thursday, so I
hopped onto a train at 7:00 in the evening.
There was almost nobody on the train, so I had a coupé to myself.
Read, slept, played guitar. Suddenly it was midnight and I was in
Frankfurt. I'd planned on a stop there, where I had been so often
as a G.I. in the 60's, but it was really cold and there was
nothing I wanted to do there, so I went on the next train to
Weinheim. Arrived 30 minutes over midnight--not the best time to
drop in on folks, especially when they first expect you the next
day--and took a taxi out to Hammerweg. Luckily, Alf & Margarete
were home, and had just gone to bed, so it was ok...otherwise I'd
have had a long cold night ahead of me.
Marianne & I had been down to visit them in October '96, and we
send telefaxes to each other pretty often, so it wasn't like it
had been so long since we had seen each other. We had met Alf way
back in '85, when Marianne, Mads & I were hitchhiking around Spain
and Portugal for a couple of months. Alf was driving long-
distance truck and he picked us up just outside of Lisbon. We
simply hit it off, spent a weekend together in Merida, Spain,
where Alf had to wait until Monday to pick up a load, and we've
all been friends ever since. Alf came up to København for my 50th
birthday party, and so now it was my turn to make the trip for his.
Alf speaks english just like an American, but Margarete speaks
only German, so now I really did have to warm up that language.
Which went pretty smoothly: it's all there in my head, all I have
to do is pluck it from the box I put it in over 30 years ago.
Alf had Friday off, and was going to play badminton with 2 other
guys in the morning, so I could be a 4th, so we went to a big
Sportshalle and I got to tune in to his social life. We played
with Manfred and Gerhardt, 2 guys Alf works with, also in their
40s: I'm no great badminton player, but they weren't much better,
so it was fun. I could speak German with them, but when they spoke
together it was the local Weinheim dialect, which is just as
incomprehensible as Bavarian ,so I lost track pretty fast. (for
example, bis morgen-- see you tomorrow --is pronounced "bish
Alf's party was to be held 2 doors away from his house in a church
meeting hall. We began setting up the party, moving tables,
getting the keg and the locally-produced wine ("Weinheim" means
"wine home" and has an old vinyard tradition). That evening we
ate dinner together and ended up in front of the TV, where I could
assimilate some real German culture. There must be 25 German
channels (we get 3 of them at home in København), and they're
retty much the same scheisse as on American TV.
But then we zapped over to CNN--where Clinton's latest scandal
with Monica Lewinsky was entertaining the masses and demonstrating
to Europeans once again what a morally uptight country USA can be.
The Germans (and Danes) are all much more offended by the media's
wallowing in juicy details than by anything Clinton ever might have
done. (A French commentator said, "When the Americans finally
outlaw cigarettes completely, the President will have to sneak a
smoke in the toilet so that the Press doesn't catch him and have
him kicked out of office.")
Saturday was the party. Everything was pretty much all set, and
guests weren't due until evening, so Margarete loaned me her car
and I drove on into Heidelberg by myself for a few hours. I've
been there many times, it's a nice town--tourist & university
oriented, lots of cafés, snack bars, an old castle half-ruined by
American bombs in the good old days of WWII. But a hell of a
place to park a car.
I climbed the hill up to the castle for the view, walked around
the old part of town a couple of hours, observed that the place
was overrun with seemingly very affluent Chinese tourists, then
back to Weinheim.
By 18:00 the guests had arrived and the place filled up with
family, old friends, work colleagues: about 85-90 of them. Alf
introduced me to them as they came pouring in, but it didn't take
long for me to lose track of names. The only ones I knew besides
A&M were Alf's parents and his best friend Siggy, who was being
the bartender. There were very few who spoke any English, and
their German was weird, so I thought, "oh my, what am I going to
DO at this party?"
The dinner was buffet-style, sit anywhere, everyone sitting with
their friends. I talked with some people, so I wasn't exactly a
wallflower. Then I took over the bartender's job so that Siggy
could go eat, and served beer to those exacting German
specifications (about 4 inches of foam on top, it takes 3 minutes
to serve a Deutsches bier correctly--they thought my trick of
pre-pouring a pitcher to speed up the process was real American
fast-foodism). Of course I had my own constantly full glass of
beer to sip from now and then...after 2, 4, 6 glasses of gutes
Duetsches bier I could easily sprechen sehr gutes Deutsch,
And then the girls started flirting with me. I hadn't expected that.
Everyone was married here (me too), but did that stop them? Nein!
One sweet young thing (just turned 40, young to me) wanted to
speak English with a real live American. I didn't mind, so we
talked a bit and she got all cuddly after her 15th glass of wine--
me thinking, hey I'm married (good thing my wife's not here).
About Midnight Alf insisted that I go get my guitar and give a
couple of numbers. I figured maybe I'd better.
So I did some of my own songs, some Mexican, Paul Simon & Bob
Dylan for a little singalong. And a comical dirty German song
that turned into a rout because they couldn't understand my
pronounciation of it and insisted that we break it down and
analyze it line for line...
I was too mellow by that time to be upset by a little thing like
fiasco, when Young Girl Number 2 (only 49) dumped herself on my
lap and started kissing me and whispering sweet German nothings
in my ear. 1st girl, still waiting for me to come back, got
pissed off. 2nd girl's sister also got pissed off, calling her a
shameless hussy--later, sister cornered me to tell me that she
thought I had the most beautiful singing voice she'd ever heard,
pressing her bosom up against me. They all did that, I guess
that's how German women get a man's attention (works for me). The
2nd moved in again, informing me that she too had nice big breasts,
posing to demonstrate, then grabbing me and smothering me within
said bosom. 1st girl turned her back on me and drank herself into
oblivion. All their husbands were on the other side of the table,
drinking and laughing. It was all so extreme that it was more
funny than embarrassing. I started drinking ice water instead of
alcohol, but all those girls went down in flames, fortunately for
me. Alf told me later, "Aw, they always do that," so I guess it
was no big thing. Anyway, now my German WAS warmed up.
We went home at 7:00 in the morning, and had to come back and
clean up the mess that afternoon, so Sunday was a short night's
sleep and a hard day's night. Monday we went shopping in a Mall
that could have been anywhere; States, Denmark, Singapore. That
evening Alf had to go back to work, up into his truck at 10:00 at
night, heading south to Ulm, then Munich, so he was gone.
Margarete had one more day off, but I figured it was time to be
movin' on down that dusty old trail. As Benjamin Franklin so
succinctly put it: "Visitors, like fish, smell after 3 days."
My trip home was a nostalgic tour of the Germany I knew as a US
Army soldier more than 30 years before: I stopped in Frankfurt for a
couple of hours, then went on to Fulda, where I'd been stationed
with the 14th Armored Cavalry for 18 months from 64-66.
Everything had changed on the outskirts, skyscrapers, new building
projects, but the old town centers remain pretty much intact. I
ate lunch in my old hangout, "das Alte Post", where I got a
classic Wienerschnitzel mit pommes frites und ein bier for just
13 DMarks, cheap & good. I didn't see the guys, tho. I just
wandered around a while, remembering being 22 years old, a newly-
arrived Stranger in a Strange Land. This is the kind of thing I
couldn't get away with when I travel with Marianne (or anyone
else), it's hard to justify just wandering around memory lane to
someone else who doesn't share those memories.
Then it was up on the train by 15:30 to catch the last train to
København out of Hamburg at 19:30, or I'd have to stay overnight
there, and by now I had quite satisfied my yearnings to wander
aimlessly around German cities.
I had a novel to read (Den Serbiske Dansker, a Danish spy
thriller by Leif Davidsen, not bad) so the hours rolled by in the
train. Change in Hamburg, with a 2 hour layover, so now I really
really quenched any last vestige of interest in trudging around
German cities in sub-zero temperatures. An hour to Lübek, another
hour to Puttgarten, an hour's Ferry Boat ride, and finally 2 more
hours through Denmark to København. I was home after midnight.
When I got off the bus from København's hovedbanegården and walked
the last remaining block to our apartment near Kongens Nytorv, I
really noticed what an elegant part of town I lived in, really
appreciated how these great old buildings had not been modernized
and changed, and felt a real surge of joy to have been on this
trip--and to have come home to København and my very own Marianne.