January 27, 2009

An early attempt at documenting my travels...

I was going through some old e-mails today when I came across a travel report from my 2001 trip to Europe. Europe never interested me as a destination. I was much more interested in the far-flung places that were less often explored, but Fawn made a proposition that I couldn't refuse. She said, "I can go alone or you can come with me."

Not really wanting to make my post-university graduation trip the stereotypical European backpacking trip, I reluctantly agreed to go. I just couldn't bear the idea of letting Fawn travel alone.

What follows is the unedited reproduction of one of my first attempts at "travel writing". It's not the first, but it's pretty close...

Michael Visits East Germany - Alone...
(Taken from my travel journal.)
We spent our first week at Fawn's parent's house, in the town of Luchow (There are actually two little dots over the 'u'), which is in the northern, rural part of Germany. Unfortunately, Fawn got sick so I had to find my own way around for a few days. Fortunately, I wasn't confined to Luchow (Don't forget those two little dots!), because I was allowed to use her grandfather's old bike.

When I say 'old bike', I'm not kidding. This thing saw action in the war, and the seat still has the battle damage to prove it. It is made of industrial grade steel - the stuff they use to make railroad tracks. It is a tank-bike. It could probably take a hit from a land mine and still keep going. And best of all, the bike is designed in such a way, that you have no choice but to sit up straight. The upright posture, uncommon in most of today's bikes, produces a massive amount of wind drag, and forces the entire weight of your body downwards, onto the battle-damaged seat.

Fawn's grandfather had used it, way back when, to ride around the German countryside. Sometimes, he even took it as far as the Elbe River, which was once the dividing line between East and West Germany. So that's where I decided to go, because that's what you do with a tank-bike, right? You take it for a 50km bike ride to former-East Germany!

The scenery was lovely. On my ride, I saw old (1700's) half-timber houses, forests, charming old farm towns, miniature horses, cranes and herons, and a motorcycle with a side-car. I stopped in a little town to give my butt a rest, and review my map.

Up until that point, it had been my policy to to avoid the locals, who might start up a conversation that I couldn't contribute to. I can speak about as much German as the average Canadian citizen can speak Inuktitut - not much.

Too late, I realised that, behind a tree, there was a old lady raking the leaves in her yard. I pulled out my map. She said something to me. I smiled and asked, "Sprechen Sie English?" Smiling, she said something else, and returned to her raking.

I put the map away and began to leave, when I noticed her two cats. One was standing further up the road and the other, about seven feet away, was playing with a beetle. Sometimes it would paw at it, and sometimes it would lick it. However, every time the beetle walked towards the cat, the cat would jump back, or crawl away in fear. Fascinated, I watched.

The lady said something again. I think she said something like, "They're cute, aren't they?" But it could have just as easily meant, "Would you like to have one of them to eat for dinner?" or "The black one was used as part of the German space program."

I responded with, "Sprechen Sie English? English?" She kept talking to me in German, as if I hadn't said anything at all, and as thought I were only pretending I couldn't understand her. When she was done, and returned to her raking, I returned to my cycling.

Eventually (and in a great deal of butt-pain), I crossed the Elbe River, and into the little town of Domitz (There are two little dots over the 'o'. They are big on those two little dots here.)

What a difference from the cute, clean, little towns I had just come from! Here, buildings were falling into states of disrepair, a lot of buildings were vacant, all the buildings were taller, and packed closely together, forming town squares where the sunlight could barely reach. All the roads were cobblestone, and there was hardly a tree or speck of grass in town. What it lacked in archetectural warmth, it more than made up for it by the warmth of the people. Nearly everyone said "Guten Tag." (Which, I think means, "Wow! That's an OLD bike!")

Hungry and thirsty, I stop ped at a small corner-cafe, with a large window. I figured I could keep an eye on the bike (not that anyone was going to steal it), and enjoy some fine German cuisine. I walked in and sat down.

Along the walls, were tiny deer skulls, most with tiny antlers, attached to wooden plaques. There was a huge one right above my table. Otherwise, the cafe was empty.

A waitress appeared and said something to me. I responded with the now-instinctive, "Sprechen Sie English?" She called to another waitress, who appeared from the back.

I ordered an Orangensaft (orange juice) and asked to see a menu. She got the orange juice, but no matter how much I charaded or mimed, she didn't have a clue what a menu was. She mimed to ask if I would like something to eat, and then asked what I would like to eat (all in German). I stared at her blankly and made the international sign of "I don't have a clue". She walked away and returned with a menu. Then, in German, she read out what each section was, as though I were illiterate. When she reached a section that looked like food, she pointed to a DM5 (5 Deutsche Marks) dish.

I didn't know what she was pointing to, so trusting her (she WAS pointing to it!), I nodded 'yes.' She then asked me something that, as far as I could figure, was "mashed, baked, or fried potatoes". I just smiled and made the international sign of "I don't have a clue" again.

When she returned, she brought me a nice big plate of eggs over fried potato and pork bits, with a small salad on the side. It looked delicious so I dug in. It was the saltiest food I have ever tasted in my life! So what does my waitress do? Bring me more salt!

I was done my juice by now, and was still thirsty after my long ride (and the saltiest eggs on earth), so I asked for some 'Wasser'. She returned with mineral water. I tried to explain that I wanted tap water, and mimed the turning on of a tap to fill the glass. She grabbed the glass and returned, proudly, with three tiny ice cubes. She poured the mineral water with a flourish, and walked away, proud that she had figured out what I wanted.

I don't really like mineral water, but I was thirsty, and the mineral taste made a nice addition to the elemental taste of the salty eggs, so I drank it anyway.

The total bill came to DM 9,50, and I left a DM 1 tip for her efforts. As I was leaving, she said, "I learn a little English," and I said "Gut! Das ist gut!", but what I really wanted to say was, "So, why didn't you use it?!?"

Outside again, I put my battle-damaged seat back onto the bike's battle damaged seat, and rode the tank-bike back to Fawn's parent's place, happy with the memories of my day in the German countryside.

Oh, I learned so much on that trip and, even if it wasn't on my list of "MUST See Places", in the end, I'm glad I went. Domitz, that little village with two dots over the 'o', has changed a lot since I was last there (tracking a canoe through the canals). It's become more gentrified and is losing its former rustic, depressing grey charm. Folks from former West Germany are snapping up comparatively inexpensive properties in former East Germany and are renovating them. I'm glad I got to see Domitz before it lost its charm..

No comments: