Friday, July 15, 2011

Three places to vacation (5)

Wiedemannsweg 3, I went to see the place, a brick-house I used to call home, and I had no real sense of belonging there anymore. The house had been altered. The once teak-framed large picture-windows had been changed into white plastic-framed windows more in design like those that used to be there when the house was first built during the Nazi times in the 1930s. Seeing all the picture windows gone made me sad. The change was made simply to save on insurance. My mother would turn in her grave if she knew. The place where the largest of the windows used to be had received a door with windows left and right to open to a little terrace. I didn't think that was appropriate.

A consolation was that the apple tree was still there. The driveway was the same as always. It had been built to last. I still remember how it had been constructed so that you would not sink into the mud when it got really wet. A ditch had been dug there many years earlier. It had been filled with rocks and bricks and boulders from the remodeling job that my step-father and my mother had done shortly after the house had been bought. We had all been involved in this project. The objective had been to get rid of construction debris and to fortify the tire tracks for all eternity so that nobody would ever get stuck in our yard. Apparently that reminder of my past was permanent.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Three places to vacation (4)

Meldorf is a sleepy little town of about 8000 inhabitants. The cathedral from around 1300 in the center of town dominates the landscape. The cobblestone area around the church is also the location for the weekly market. Stores, including the 300 year old pharmacy where I worked, before I came to the United States, and cafes line the periphery of the square. The Dom cafe was always a favorite meeting place for young and old. Those things had not changed. The Hotel zur Linde was an inviting place that had been chosen by a number of my former classmates for the get-together.

Sorry, this is the only photo I have with me in it. Beggars can't be chosers.

The reunion coincided with the graduation of this year's Meldorfer Gelehrtenschule students. The band played, the speeches by teachers, parents, students and one of our "golden" graduates who had become a professor were inspiring, and the atmosphere was a happy one. The building that we had attended was not the same as the one the current students were attending. Our old school had become a museum.

The whole town seemed to have become a museum. It was a reminder of the times when Meldof was so important that it had become the bishopric for a sizable area of Northern Germany. The large Roman-Gothic cathedral bore witness to that fact. The church was much larger than needed for a town this size. Now the train to Westerland didn't even stop here anymore. Only privatized regional trains served Meldorf when they were not on strike. The main drag that used to go over the railroad tracks now ended there, and only pedestrians and bicyclist could get downtown from Wiedemannsweg where we lived using the recently constructed pedestrian underpass.

The main highway by-passed the town altogether. The city seemed dead, except for us, the classmates from 50 years ago. We all knew how it had been. We all visited and remembered who we were with shared pictures and notebooks. We saw our graduation exams that seemed so irrelevant at this time. But we all talked late into the night over some Dithmarschen Pils. It was like old times without the ambitions and without the envy that one might have detected years ago over one person's better fortune.

Life was different now, but we all decided that we wanted to meet again in another five years.

You can't go home again, but this was better. We all knew how it was and how it could have been, and we didn't envy those current graduates at all.

Between three places to vacation

Alas Ile d'Yeu is like any paradise not meant to be a permanent location. After just two short weeks my plans took me to the golden anniversary of my German high school graduation, my Abitur. Getting there was another matter. I was thoroughly unprepared for the trip that awaited me.

My brother had suggested this trip because he had attended his reunion last year, and he had told me that I simply had to go. I would love it because of the person who organized it.

Let me put it this way. Things are not the way they used to be. You really do need reservations, especially if you travel using a Eurailpass as your ticket. In the past I had been able to reserve my seat for the train by just getting to the railroad station about half an hour early. Nowadays you have to be aware of the fact that the train management reserves the right to only allot a certain percentage of seats to Eurailpass holders. That means the train may be half empty and you still won't get a seat.

I had all my reservations. I obtained them with difficulty at the Gare Maritime in Ile d'Yeu. The ticket sales people had never heard of Eurail. So I had to convince them of the pass' validity. In the end everything went smoothly. Or maybe not so smoothly. Unfortunately, because of the Eurailpass rules, the trip had to go in anything but a straight line over Strasbourg, Offenburg, and Hamburg-Altona to Meldorf, the former capital of Dithmarsia.

I left the island at 4:00 AM--the tides dictated that--to meet the bus to Nantes and the TGV to Strasbourg.

I arrived in Fromentine around 5:00 AM. It rained cats and dogs. There was nobody in the street. There was nobody to ask where the bus stop had moved from the last time I had been there. My suitcase got drenched all the way through. My clothes inside got wet. I asked two garbage truck operators who had no interest in helping me to find the stop. Then an early morning delivery truck arrived in front of a furniture store. I ventured over there. The men told me that I had to wait at the fish store, the one with the blue sign saying Poisonnerie. But I had already waited there. That was definitely not the bus stop.

I circled the rain-drenched square one more time and found a man who was just getting into his car. He pointed to a large parking lot right close to where the ferry had arrive. It was still dark and I couldn't see the schedule above the bench. Finally a man arrived who identified the stop as the correct one for the bus to Nantes. I was saved from doom.

In Nantes I still had a bit of time before the train left. So I walked over to the Hotel "Terminus." During the whole two week at paradise I had been wondering if the shoes I had left at the hotel would still be there. I didn't have much hope. But it was worth a shot. So I asked the concierge about the shoes I had left in room 57. In no time they were located, and I had a little more faith in people.

I caught the train to Strasbourg on time and negotiated the regional train from there to Offenburg in Germany.

In Offenburg I had a 7-hour wait. The first thing I did was buy a book to pass the time. The store owner told me that the thrillers were all best-sellers. The book "Begraben", a translation from the French of "Intrusion" by Elena Sender was my choice, and I was not disappointed. But I won't go into that. If you like thrillers, that book will keep you reading.

I read at the train station until night fell. I still had time to kill. Fewer and fewer people were milling around the station, and suddenly it was deserted. Shady figures sat down next to me, and wandered around me. I kept my suitcase and my purse close. A young man sat behind me.

Suddenly two policemen appeared and asked the young man if he carried a weapon. They asked him how old he was. He was 18. Could he identify himself? No. He was told to leave. Next a man came up to me and asked if I could give him money for the train to Budapest because somehow his ticket was not valid. I told him that he needed his own money. I later found out that he was asking everyone in sight the same thing. Only minutes later a drunk came by unable to hold himself upright.

Around 23:00 PM I ascended the train. I had reservations for a car that had "Liegesitze". This train furniture was meant to give a good night's sleep. What I saw was something like the "Night Camp at Grenada". From the first I was wondering in what country these cars might have been designed. They could not possibly have been thought up by anyone who was likely to ever use this type of accommodation. The seats were very uncomfortable, like hammocks made of concrete.

Some time during the middle of the night a man with very greasy disheveled hair sat in front of me. I didn't get the feeling that he had a ticket. And even though a conductor came by to check all the tickets, he was not asked to produce one. Was he on the train to be taken out of the country?

At about 3:00 AM he proceeded to search noisily through a bag. He found a chocolate bar with metallic foil covering which he noisily crunched and pressed until about half an hour of turning the foil and wrapping and re-wrapping this object, a man across the isle admonished the man to not make so much noise eating chocolate and crackling the metal. The greasy man said he could eat his chocolate as long as he wanted to. More words were exchanged. The man didn't stop. Then I heard: "Halt Dein Maul" and the greasy chocolate crackler retorted "Halt selber Dein Maul!" "And if you don't shut your trap, I report you. Do you have a ticket?" "That's none of your business." It finally got quiet after about an hour.

At some point the conductor came by, and I mentioned how uncomfortable these seats were. I am still curious where these seats were designed. I also wanted to know why the train had been standing in one place for over an hour, and the conductor said that he was sorry, but that there had been a person on the tracks trying to commit suicide.

Bushed I arrived in Hamburg-Altona in the morning. I took the Westerland train to Itzehoe where I had to change trains because the Westerland train doesn't stop in Meldorf anymore.

Guess why I didn't take any pictures of this leg of the trip?

Friday, July 08, 2011

Three places to vacation (3)

I am not sure what paradise is. But if there is such a thing, it must be Ile d'Yeu. People on the island think that the name Yeu is somehow derived from the God Jupiter. I'll accept some of that. But Yeu or Oya, islanders call it that sometimes, might just simply mean island similar to the Norwegian word "√ły" which means island. The island was probably visited by the vikings in their travels around the world.

It is nearly 10km long and 4km wide.

The Ile d'Yeu harbor where the ferry arrives is Port Joinville.

The real reason why it is like paradise is that it is just simply beautiful. It has a sense of place, and you feel your world has become small enough to be manageable.

The islanders love the sea, and I immediately felt at home here. "Partons, la mer est belle..." The sea is a deep jade blue. The crab-fishing boats, colorful themselves, carry black, yellow, red, or white flags on long thin poles meant to mark the crab cages that are placed in the waters around the island. Sadly there are fewer and fewer of those boats now because of the EU's quotas on all kinds of seafood. For that reason the island population that used to make its living exclusively from products of the sea, now relies more and more on tourism.

The island is very small. Its white-washed houses with their red tile roofs and their pastel-colored mostly blue or green shutters show a style reminiscent of either Portuguese or Greek villages. The island has all the necessecities for a proper little world of its own. It has a cedar forest. It has an ancient castle. It has windmills here and there. Some of them look as if Don Quixote had put them there himself. It has villages, and it has beaches, wonderful beaches and gentle waves along with dunes on the protected side that faces the French coast. Its wild winds and big rolling whitewater breakers, along a rocky coast, open the view to the Atlantic water of the Bay of Biscaye.

The little place where I stayed is secluded, and large cedar trees protect it from the elements. My brother who has planted hydrangeas and roses and hybiscus and wisterias, arranged his own garden with several tables with chairs so that he can sit outside in sunshine depending on the time of day. He is retired and putters around his place and builds and adds to his little world. It owns him and he owns it. And I have it stored behind the window of my eyes to tell me that peace is a quiet place off the French coast.

The castle is on the wild side of the island--the cote sauvage--with rocky cliffs and wonderful beaches.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Three places to vacation (2)

From the TGV the landscape passed by so fast that you couldn't see any details. I tried to see what crops the fields were planted with. I couldn't make out whether the green stuff was potatoes or sugar beets. There might have been sunflowers. But they were not blooming, yet. So, no vast expanses of yellow blossoms with dark brown centers. Things were not even all that green. France was in a drought. So the corn plants looked puny and underdeveloped for the time of year.

I arrived in Nantes a few hours later, too late for the bus that was supposed to take me to the ferry to Ile d'Yeu. I made my way out of the railroad station and looked for the first hotel I could find. It said Terminus in great big letters. That seemed promising. I entered. The price was right, and I decided to stay over night. I had a view of two TGVs standing on the tracks all night long. Les "trains de grande vitesse" were asleep.

In the morning I visited the Nantes cathedral. It is one of the great Gothic
structures of France with massive portals and statues of the saints in all kinds of nooks and crannies. Biblical scenes were carved into the sandstone, but I noticed that many of the figures had lost their little heads. Had those little heads gone home with tourists or was their absence the result of gradual disintegration? What a pity. Still this was a place where the weary soul could find renewal.

I spent a few more hours at the river bank watching the birds and hiked over the bridge to see what was on the other side of the canal. Boats were tied to the banks, and the whole thing was picturesque enough for photos. After that brief visit, the bus took me through level land past the characteristic white and red or the occasionally thatched roof houses of the Vendee in Western France to Fromentine otherwise known as Barre le Mont. The bus driver apparently only knew the latter. If I hadn't known any better I would still be waiting for the right bus.

I arrived at the Gare Maritime at Fromentine. I purchased a ticket and waited another several hours for the tide to come in so that the ship could take on freight and passengers. The hour-long trip was pleasant and uneventful. My brother picked me up at the Gare Maritime at Port Joinville, the little fishing harbor at Ile d'Yeu. If anything comes close to paradise. This is it, the place of dreams for two weeks of another world.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Three places to vacation (1)

The flight took me to Charles de Gaulle Airport. When I had made plans for this trip, I didn't realize that you can get right on the TGV to Nantes without having to first manage an extremely cumbersome circuitous way to reach the TGV at the Gare de Montparnasse. Instead I found out from my brother that the TGV went straight from Charles de Gaulle to Nantes without any ado. Or so I thought.

I should have been able to make a seat reservation just before entering the train. What I had not taken into account was the fact that the day I arrived was Ascension Day, a holiday in France, that happened to take everyone living in Paris to a long weekend into the country. The queue for reservations snaked around for, it seems, miles. When I got to the counter, the next two trains going to Nantes were full. That meant that the earliest train I was able to catch would leave at 18:30 o'clock. So I had an unwanted 6 hours of time to kill at the airport. Maybe the circuitous route via RER train and Metro to Montparnasse had not been the worst choice.

I learned the tune that sounded before each announcement really well (Too-tit-ataw). I also noticed people with inordinate amounts of luggage. I walked up and down and up down and up and down. I found the toilet about half a mile away. Toilets are important facilites in all airports and train stations. The cost of divesting of your drink is nearly as high as what you paid investing in it.

A tall black woman from Nigeria on crutches was occupying a bench for an inordinate amount of time and was told she couldn't stay there. Soon one of the airport officials summoned a uniformed helper to usher her to another spot. He carried everything for her. I watched all that. Then I sat at a high counter with places to plug in your laptop. Of course I didn't have a laptop. I would have liked having one. But maybe not. It would have meant too much to carry. Men in suits did their last-minute communication with whatever world they were excaping.

I took my bag and suitcase a few steps and sat down and watched the throngs of weekend-vacationers. Then I read a few pages of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I was fortunate that I had bought that because it made the time go by fairly fast. I ate a bite of my sandwich. At some point I noticed a bearded man going through the trash looking for food. Where did he come from? How could a homeless man find his way to this place? Maybe he had been inspired by the movie "Airport". I mean Charles de Gaulle is really hard to reach on foot. Even by car it takes quite bit of knowledge of the mazes around the modern glass and metal structure.

Because I would not make it to Ile d'Yeu on that day, I had to let my brother know about the change in plans. Since I had not brought my cell phone (too expensive), I had to find a pay-phone. The pay-phones at the airport have the option of using coins or a phone card. A phone-card is easier because you don't have to have handfulls of coins on hand. I bought the card for 10 Euros at the book-store. I called my brother to tell him that I would be there the next day.

Finally it was time to board the train. Too-tit-ataw, the announccement reminded everyone that you had to "decompostez votre billet". Without decomposting you could not step on the train. I did all that, and off the TGV went with me to Nantes. As in Monopoly I had passed "go". I was in business.