Notes on 2014’s German adventure

I have apparently hit the point where I am incapable of writing anything longer than about 500 words these days, so herewith is a collection of quick observations about our experiences in Germany and the Netherlands last month, vaguely in chronological order. Pictures are here.

The hegemony of English. As generally happens when I go aboard, I’m amazed at the way in which English speakers are accommodated. You can walk into pretty much any restaurant in Japan, for instance, and ask “英語のメニューがありますか?” and actually get something beyond a blank stare; I am, however, extremely skeptical that a Japanese person could walk into a random restaurant in Canada and be treated in a similar fashion. This may help to explain why the Japanese seem to do all their touring in large groups, but it also underscores that speaking English represents a privilege or an advantage that other linguistic groups don’t have while moving around the planet.

Everywhere we went we managed to get by with English. Because the trip was thrown together in a very short period of time, I had basically no opportunity to learn any German, beyond the usual politenesses and, because of the little guy, “Haben Sie ein Autokindersitz?” I speak even less Dutch, and every single person we met in the Netherlands spoke better English than I do. I can’t say that German- or Dutch-speakers with a poor command of English would do as well in the United Kingdom or North America. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair…

Dachau. We’d debated whether we wanted to go out to Dachau. It’s an easy trip from central Munich on the S-Bahn, but because the little guy was still having timezone problems, he was very fussy (and had a really annoying habit of having crying fits whenever we were in a museum or somewhere else quiet). Still, we went out on our last full day in Munich, which turned out to be Corpus Christi and therefore a holiday in Bavaria (so nothing else was open). I’m glad we did. There are few places I’ve been in the world where I’ve felt the weight of so much history pressing down; though it is a sterile place, and the barracks and “infirmary” have been destroyed (the two that exist are reconstructions), and they’ve put a museum up, it still feels evil. Worse, it feels deliberately evil. Walk around for a while in the museum section and you’ll eventually come across a large desk that kept detailed files on every prisoner in the camp. People did this, and they were very, very systematic about it.

After I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., I was mostly sad. After Dachau I felt chilled. I thought a lot about Hannah Arendt and “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and the “banality of evil.” I thought a lot about Africa, and how it had only been twenty years since the most efficient and ruthless genocide we’d ever seen, and how that not only was within my lifetime but that I remembered it all with a clarity that shocked me. I sat on the steps of the maintenance building and held my son, and told him that I hoped he’d never have to face anything like this, but that if he did, he’d have the courage to try to stop it. As I spoke to him, he laughed and grabbed at my nose. The contrast between his innocence, and the weight of history of the place, was striking.

Mostly, though, I felt hollow. Dachau left me unable to say much about anything. It’s been almost three weeks now and I’m still not really able to say much.

I tried to take pictures. It didn’t work. (Philip Greenspun’s are much better than mine.) It was a beautiful day in upper Bavaria, warm and with a pleasant breeze. Puffy cumulus clouds dotted the sky. I watched a couple DA40s and an EC135 fly overhead. You picture Dachau in your mind, you picture a concentration camp in your head, and it’s grey and cold and miserable. It’s not a nice day in your head. You can’t reconcile the idea that once upon a time thousands of people were held in this place, on days not entirely unlike this day, and what that must have been like.

You walk through the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate to get into the camp. People were taking pictures of it, and I tried to, too. It was resting at an odd angle, and the background was wrong, so I closed it seeking a better framing. It was probably the creepiest and most chilling thing I’ve ever done — I know it’s a cliché but I immediately regretted my decision. So many people had passed through this gate, so many had gone in and not come out. Whose hands had manipulated it, once upon a time, with evil intent (or simply because they were following orders) — and here I was, moving it around, closing it for the sake of getting a fucking photograph. I don’t know what to make of that reaction, whether it was legitimate or overwrought, but that’s what it felt like.

Hooniverse. I rent a lot of cars, and the Mercedes C220 CDI station wagon I picked up from Sixt in Munich was easily the nicest I’ve ever had, and the only one in a long time that I’ve been sorry to give back. We put 1,350 km on the thing in a week of driving, filled its tank twice, and I drove it harder and faster than I’ve ever driven anything. It took a bit of getting used to: it’s a diesel, so its acceleration and power are a bit different than a gasoline engine (but, to Merc’s credit, not that different), and it had a stop-start system, which meant that if you sat anywhere with your foot on the brake for more than about 3 seconds the engine shut down — which really confused the hell out of me as I pulled out of the parkade on Marstraße and tried to turn right around the train station. (“Mein Auto ist kaput!” “Nein, it works fine. Idiot.”) It was an odd combination of annoying and cute, and it was totally useless since we did almost no driving in cities.

This trip was my first time using an in-car satellite navigation system for most of our routefinding — I like paper maps and in particular I like paper map books — and though we had Google as a backup I relied on the Merc’s navi to get around. It worked — sort of. Its idea of optimal routes didn’t always match mine, and in Konstanz every single route it programmed for me ended up in construction detours. (“Umleitung” might mean “detour”, but it also means “Mike gets stabby”.) It also decided, spontaneously, that it didn’t like the traffic that was building up on the A81, and that I should drive an alternate route through the middle of the Black Forest — one that took me past the factories of Rhinemetall and H&K in Oberndorf am Neckar on the L415 (and wasn’t that a windy bit of road). At one point in Mertloch it kept telling me to drive down a one-way road in the wrong direction, and it was only through some very quick thinking that we avoided being face-to-face with other traffic.

My feelings were, and still are, mixed. I have, in the past, made fun of people who relied on a road GPS for getting around; now I am one. In a place where I’ve got time to look at a map, and think about my routing, it’s pretty clear what works better for me. In a foreign country, where you can’t carry all the maps you need, where your mobile Internet connection is spotty at best, it’s probably a necessary crutch — but you can’t turn your brain off and follow the car, because the car doesn’t really know any better. In that sense it was probably a lot more draining than just using a real map, but what choice do you have?

The Autobahnen live up to their reputation. On the derestricted segments, you can, in theory, drive as fast as you want. In practice this is a lot harder than it sounds, because you run into traffic. I didn’t take the car out at night, but that might have been damned interesting. Driving the Autobahn is actually kind of relaxing because everyone is utterly predictable, and there are basically no surprise maneuvers that make you cringe in fear, and it’s nice to be able to focus on driving instead of worrying about your speed. I got tired of moving back and forth between the right and left lanes, so I decided I was just going to drive faster than everyone else (which is fine until someone in a BMW or a Porsche comes flying up behind you going even faster). “Faster than everyone else” works out to basically 150 km/hr, and the Mercedes was quite happy to drive at that speed for extended periods of time. On the way to Konstanz I did an extended sprint at 170, and then on the way out of Germany, in the moments before we left for the Netherlands, I managed to run it at 205. The car was totally drama-free up until about 190, at which point there was a bit of buffeting and it didn’t feel entirely stable anymore. (It reminded me a lot of driving a Hyundai Genesis, which has a shitload of power but somehow manages to isolate you from the experience of that power, in that you never get the sense it’s going to step out and try to kill you. It’s just a bit… boring, I guess.)

We made a brief detour through France one afternoon, on the way from Baden-Baden up to the Rhine, and I can’t explain how weird it was to go from a place where you had to look at the road signs and know what they meant through pattern recognition to a place where you could just read stuff and have it make sense. To go from being illiterate to literate and illiterate again in the space of an hour was jarring as hell, even if it was just road signs.

Neuschwanstein convinced me that Mad King Ludwig was actually a Nick Hornby character. This was a guy who, unsatisfied with his lot in life as symbolic king of Bavaria, collapsed into his own fantasy world and built a castle with obsessive detail. He broke off his engagement with a fiancée because she didn’t share his passion for Richard Wagner’s work. This is basically what Rob and the rest of the cast of “High Fidelity” would be like if they had money and a title. The castle is suitably impressive, though the tour is a bit rushed, and I confess a much deeper curiosity about the rooms that are unfinished than those open to the public. It’s in a very, very, very attractive part of Germany, right down on the Austrian border; we drove down the Romantic Road on a rainy Friday afternoon and arrived in Füssen under a 400′ AGL ceiling, so all the mountaintops were shrouded in mist and intrigue. In a fit of desperation, because all our preferred hotel choices were full, we stayed at the Hotel Wiedemann just outside the main town of Füssen itself, and I’m really happy we did, because it had this fabulous lost alpine ski cabin feel. Dead quiet. Fresh, cool air swirling through the rooms. The little guy had his own bedroom. It was awesome, and managed to win our award for “best hotel of the trip.” Go.

The Bodensee. Really picturesque. Very pretty. Konstanz is an old city, with old buildings (its proximity to Switzerland meant that Allied bombers didn’t hit the place). Once again I discovered that the nicest people in any city are working in its laundromats (mad props to Sandra at Sonnen Paradis Solarium & Waschsalon). It reminded me a lot of Kelowna, in that it’s a vacation city on a lake. Walking around town, and particular around the harbor, it was easy to forget that we were on a lake rather than the ocean — it’s unusual, in the Pacific Northwest, to find lakes this big. We spent an afternoon at the Bodensee Konstanz Therme, which is a very nice swimming center on the lake, and found a very nice beer garden down on the waterfront. The Rhine idyllically flows through town, and from our hotel on the banks of the river, looking out over it at sunset, watching folks float by, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a boat more.

Unfortunately our experiences in Konstanz were marred a bit by the fact that we made the wrong choice of hotel: a brand-new facility on the banks of the Rhine, it supposedly had air conditioning. Unfortunately it was vastly underpowered for the heat load it managed to absorb with its huge front of glass, so much so that K. woke up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat complaining about the stuffiness. It’s really unfortunate, because it’s a nice hotel otherwise — the staff tried hard to help, but the windows desperately need an IR-rejecting film coating.

Black Forest. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the drive through the Black Forest — the etymology for which becomes immediately apparent if you end up taking K and L roads through the area (thanks, satnav). We stopped in at the Black Forest Open Air Museum, home to about a dozen buildings representing over 400 years of history in the Black Forest. Though there’s comparatively little English, everything was weirdly familiar and strangely easy for me to understand. It took me a little while to realize that a lot of the technology on display was contemporaneous, or at least ridiculously similar, to a lot of the equipment used during the settlement of western Canada. There were hand tools that looked like they could have come out of my grandfather’s shed. Maybe there’s a knowledge link, maybe it’s just that hand tools have always looked that way — I don’t know. But the Black Forest around Gutach felt a lot like southern Alberta: the fields of grain, the threatening afternoon sky, even the air felt like my childhood.

Baden-Baden. If you were a rich person back in 19th century Europe you came to places like Baden-Baden to relax and get away from everything. Today, if you’re a rich Russian, you come to a place like Baden-Baden to get away from everything (and buy up real estate in a stable country). I saw more Cyrillic on buildings here than I expected. We were only in town for 18-ish hours, but my son and I walked around while my wife went to Friedrichsbad the evening we arrived, and it was one the nicest towns we visited — a charming blend of old and new — even though it was readily apparent that it was an expensive place to be long term. The next morning I went to Friedrichsbad on my own, and … yeah.

This is an old public bath. It’s been doing its thing for the better part of 130 years. Mark Twain described it thusly: “Here at the Friedrichsbad you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20.” It’s not hard to see why. The building itself is gorgeous, and my photographer’s soul cried out for not being able to attack the place with a wide-angle lens and some strategically-placed strobes. Alas, no cameras are allowed past the change room — mostly because all the patrons are naked. K. went on a segregated day; I didn’t. Which means that from the moment you take your clothes off to the moment you put them back on, you’re in mixed company (no separate change rooms for you!). This is weird for about 20 minutes, and then you don’t really care anymore. Let me explain.

It starts with a shower that is a combination between a rain shower, a waterfall, and a firehose. You use a lever about 1.5′ long to blend hot and cold water that cascades down over your head. (I’m not being flowery by that description — it really is a cascade.) Properly cleaned, you walk into the first sauna room, where you spend fifteen minutes hanging out at 54C. Then you head into another sauna, this one at 68C. Spend five minutes there. Shower again, and then head into the scrub room where — at least in my case — a dude (wearing clothes) who looks a lot like a Teutonic Michael Chiklis will scrubs you all over with your choice of a stiff brush, or a very stiff brush. Pick the stiff brush. This is about the point where the nudity stops bothering you, and you realize that maybe it’s a good idea to spend structured time naked around strangers every once in a while so as to get out of your head. The last time I got this thoroughly scrubbed, it was a big hairy dude in Turkey; this was much more clinical.

From there you head into a pair of steam baths, featuring huge metal racks down which the spring water cascades, releasing absurd amounts of heat. I didn’t think the first room was too bad, until someone opened the door to the hotter room, and then I needed to rinse off because I thought I was going to pass out. This is also where I ran into naked women, but by this time it wasn’t even remotely a thing — you nod and close your eyes again, breathing in the mists that smell like hot earth. Then you move to a deliciously warm thermal pool, under a stained glass ceiling; after ten minutes there, head into the whirlpool, and then into Friedrichsbad’s signature party piece: the “kinotherapeutic pool.” This is cooler than the whirlpool, but its turquoise water under a soaring dome surrounded by carved cherubs is like swimming in a pool of Evian. I was “traveling” with a pair of guys through the spa and I leapt out of the whirlpool and fell into the pool ahead of them, so I could have the experience of slicing through the perfectly still water on my own — oh, it was fantastic! You float on your back and stare up at the ceiling and think you never want to leave. I didn’t.

It’s all over after that. There are more showers, a somewhat strangely named “cream room” (really, an opportunity to moisturize your body with lotion), and then a warm, dark space where they wrap you in fuzzy blankets and you can have a little nap. You come out cleaner than you’ve been in a long time, feeling refreshed and wanting to do it all over again. I highly recommend it — look at their ritual descriptions and tell me you’re not interested. Trust me, you get over the nudity. You realize pretty quickly that everyone has a body, and everyone has their own issues about their bodies, and that knowledge makes it very difficult to be overly judgey. It’s way cheaper than a therapist as far as getting over body issues, I think.

The Nürburgring will be the subject of its own post in the very near future.

Amsterdam. It’s a neat place but I think it would be a lot better if they got rid of all the tourists. K. summed it up nicely: “it’s like Las Vegas for the British.” A lot of our time there was spent dodging drunken Britons on stag parties and trying to avoid having them puke on our shoes. It isn’t too difficult to see why Amsterdam would be appealing for that kind of thing, what with the ready access to sex and marijuana, though I’d have thought the absurd prices for beer would dissuade folks. We spent an afternoon in Haarlem, mostly just walking around, and without the throngs of foreigners it was a nice, relaxing place to be. Eventually we ended up at the Teylers Museum, which I can only describe as Bill Bryson’s “A Brief History of Almost Everything” translated into a building. It’s a fascinating collection, run in a very traditional way — meaning there is almost no electrical light inside, so if it’s dark outside, it’s dark inside. If you have any interest at all in the history of science, you have to go: the fossil collection is outstanding, and you can thoroughly impress your friends by figuring out what all the contraptions in the instrument room are for.

The coffeeshops made me think that we need to get working on the legalization, or at least the decriminalization, of marijuana sooner rather than later. This is something I’ve believed for a long time, but seeing a system where it is legal with my own eyes helped me to realize this is basically a no-brainer. (Coincidentally I understand Marc Emery is getting out of prison tomorrow, so hey, that’s good to know.) We wandered into a couple of places — Paradox, the Dampkring (hooray for Ocean’s 12 nostalgia!), Voyagers — and yeah, it’s so not a big deal. Standing on the banks of a canal smoking a joint is basically the Amsterdam equivalent of watching the sun set with a beer in Yoyogi Park: nobody cares, and with good reason. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in Washington state: today is the first day of legal weed sales south of the border.

Heathrow has now become my least-favorite airport in the world, displacing Pearson. I hadn’t really liked Heathrow earlier, but I hate it now, mostly because I’d never tried to connect through it. I know what the published MCTs are for that station, but I really, truly think you need to double them in order to be truly comfortable. Either that, or go through the place with a baby strapped to your back so the staff take pity on you and send you through FasTrack. Heathrow isn’t really an airport, anyway — more like a mall that happens to have airplanes in it.

It was a good trip, in the end. Different from the traveling we’d been doing up until a couple of years ago — for one thing, we had the little guy with us, and that basically slowed us right down — but definitely not worse. The entry was a bit bumpy, owing to desynchronosis for both us and the kiddo, and the culture shock was a lot more severe than I had expected; it had been three years since we’d been in a non-English speaking country, and it took us a few days to remember how to function in that kind of environment. But everyone we met was unfailingly nice, mostly very helpful, was curious about the baby, and did their best to accommodate us bumbling around their home country. Beyond the Nürburgring I don’t feel an urge to head back to that part of the world anytime soon; I think the next European adventure is probably going to be an extended stay in France, or a spin through Eastern Europe…

Hey! What do you know! That turned out to be 3,840 words!