Saturday, September 9, 2006. Krakow and Heidelberg.
Happy Birthday to me! George left this morning for his final few ISEE presentations. After breakfast and packing for travel I strolled to the square for an hour of internet. Then I wandered around taking pictures and observing the Saturday AM crowd. Last night we discovered that Krakow parties hard all night long on Fridays, with lots of laughing and (hopefully) playful screaming in the streets. Today even more shoppers and sightseers filled Old Town. George returned around noon. I’d already checked out of our room and paid the bill, so we left our luggage in the “lobby” (small reception office) and walked around the block in search of a cafe. I’d already eaten a “kebab”–a sandwich on pita-like bread filled with lettuce, roasted chicken, onion, tomato, cucumber, and herbal mayonnaise. George had eaten a mid-morning pastry, so we didn’t want much. We found a small cafe with a Coca-Cola sign above the door. I ordered a cappucino and Geroge requested a hamburger. It arrived on a nice, hearty bun with lettuce, tomato, catsup and “meat.” We couldn’t tell for sure what the patty was made of, but George guessed it might have been a veggie burger of some sort.
We gathered our bags from the hotel and made our way to the train station, bought tickets, and located what we thought was the right platform. A couple of friendly folks removed their I-pod earpieces long enough to confirm our guess. A few minutes later the train pulled up with “Airport” clearly displayed on the front. We boarded for a 20-minute non-stop ride through Polish countryside. The train deposited us at a platform where a shuttle waited to take us to the terminal. “This is all going quite smoothly,” I thought, pleased to know we had a full hour and a half before our flight. The announcement board directed us to check-in at counters 1, 2, 3, or 4, which were just to our left. Each line already had fifteen to twenty people in it. Not too bad. However, we noticed a disproportionate number of them appeared to be junior-high aged girls. We soon learned they were a volleyball team from Spain. We asked them if they won, and their coach laughed and said, “No. Lost. Very lost.” The girls giggled, apparently not too traumatized by their very lostness.
After ten-to-fifteen minutes we began to realize the line hadn’t moved at all. The v-ball team’s four coaches had divided the 2 dozen or so girls between all four check-in lines, and we were behind the chatty pack in line 4. We were wishing we had Grace with us so we could engage them in conversation. Our line inched forward till finally the v-ball contingent had reached the counters. Then the conveyor belt for the luggage malfunctioned. When we’d been standing in this shortish line for an hour, the man behind us stepped over to the business class counter, then returned and told his wife they could check in there. We followed. By the time we received our boarding passes, all the agents were calling for people on our flight to come to the front of the lines. We still had to go through security and passport check, and our flight was scheduled to leave in 25 minutes.
At security George realized he’d forgotten to pack his Swiss army pocket knife in his checked bag. He sent it through x-ray, fulling expecting the camo-clad officials to confiscate it. But they didn’t. They also didn’t take my lipstick or chapstick, even though a posted sign indicated those items should have also been checked, seeing as how they are semi-liquid and suitable for bomb making. (I hear all the fashionable bombs are wearing a pink shade this year.)
So, we made it to our gate with about ten minutes to spare and boarded a Lot Polish jet that seats 84. Leather seats. Ample leg room. Our flight took off at 3:50 PM as scheduled. We didn’t expect a meal, because we’d be landing at 5:30, but they served a “cold lunch”: a sandwich on a hearty oat bun with sliced sausage and smoked cheese and a single pickled mini corn-on-the-cob (!) in the middle; soft cheese and club crackers, an orange muffin, a chocolate wafer cookie (similar to Kit-Kat), and beverage of choice. I’m thinking US airlines could take some air travel cues from the Europeans.
The intercom announcements were made in Polish first, then English, then sometimes German. So far I’ve yet to find myself in a situation where I’m completely confused and no one speaks English.
Smooth sailing through Frankfurt’s airport, and all bags accounted for. Jeff Zirnfus met us in the waiting area outside baggage claim. George and Jeff have been friends since tenth grade in Titusville, Florida. Jeff’s wife, Kim, works with the Department of Defense on an army base in Heidelberg, and they’ve been living here now for two years. We headed toward the parking structure, a multi-level system reached by elevators spaced at intervals along a space-age looking hallway. I almost expected Captain Kirk to step out of one of the elevators, having just been beamed up by Scotty. We found Jeff’s car, then wound our way through the maze, down a corkscrew ramp, and out into a sunny German day. He manuevered his BMW (bay em vay) to the autobahn and we flew past quaint red-roofed towns and green mountainsides dotted with the occasional castle perched on hilltop or slope. The drive to Heidelberg took an hour. We proceeded to a small village called St. Leon, driving on narrow roads through corn fields and lots of asparagus (spargel) patches–Jeff says Germans are obsessive about spargel–finally arriving at the tidy, bricked street the Zirnfus family calls home.
After meeting their two adopted children, Christine and Aaron, unpacking a bit and starting a load of laundry, we strolled a few blocks to a local eatery that serves both German and Greek food. On Kim’s recommendation I ordered a meat-on-a-spit dish that featured samplings of lamb, pork, sausage, and beef with “potato chips”–round-cut french fries. I also ordered a glass of white wine. George ate schnitzel with noodles (a few of his favorite things) and beer.
German beer is more an experience than a beverage. First, it’s very inexpensive. Bottle water costs more than a mug or glass of beer. It comes in a wide variety of shades and flavors, each type dictating the kind of glass it’s served in. And they don’t substitute glassware. On top of that, each glass has a mark on the side indicating exactly how high it should be filled.
Jeff says Germans are basically a type-A society. They love rules. Rules for cars, bikes, pedestrians, recycling, bagging your groceries, etc. After two years Jeff and Kim are beginning to feel like they’re mastering the system.
We returned to their house–built to be a duplex, but they occupy all four floors. George and I have the spacious basement level to ourselves. Granite, spiral staircases lead from one floor to the next. The houses here have cinderblock frames, and the whole house is built of solid materials: tile, hardwoods, granite. It’s bad for sound absorbtion, but great for durability. These houses will be standing 500 years from now.
Sunday, September 10, 2006. St. Leon and Speyer.
We rose early for the 8:30 service at the chapel on the military base. George and I had to bring our passports, and Jeff had to sign us in. We took a brief tour of the base after church. Military life is a culture all its own. The Zirnfuses deliberately chose not to live on base b/c they wanted to experience German culture.
We drove back to their house, changed clothes, outfitted ourselves with bikes and helmets, and rode to meet two other couples for an outing to Speyer. Paved pathways criss-cross Germany like an intricate spiderweb. They cut through farmlands, forests, and towns. We also turned off onto gravel paths and occasionally into single ruts. Our course took us to the Rhein River which we followed, pedaling on an embankment that rose beside the sparkling water, sometimes gliding beneath weeping willow trees. In the distance we saw the towers of a Romanesque Dom (cathedral)–the landmark of our ultimate destination.
We coasted onto the bricked streets of Speyer, parked our bikes beside an ivy-covered wall, and entered the enclosed, outdoor seating area of Domhof Haus. We snagged a table much more quickly than we expected to, given the perfect weather and the German practice of family outings on Sundays. We ordered beer (of course), salads, and flammkuchen–a traditional German “pizza” with a very thin crust made from the yeast that’s a by-product of (one guess) beer production. It’s topped with creamy white cheese, onions, and bacon. Yummy.
After relaxing over lunch and yet more beer (for the record I didn’t have any at all–I drank water and paid more for it than the guzzlers), we toured the Dom. Beth, one of the women in our group, is a history buff and knew a lot about the architecture and local history. She made a great personal tour guide. We went down to the crypt, gazed at the arches towering above us, and once again marveled at the patient artistry of generations long past.
From there we pedaled down the street to a baroque chapel–quite the contrast from the muted sandstone shades of rose, taupe, and beige in the Dom. This one was filled with dark, carved wood and painted frescos. Golden angels flanked the altar. Then we headed to Judenstrasse (Jewish Street). Long ago Jews found sanctuary in Speyer. A benevolent bishop allowed them to build a place of worship behind his residence and offered them protection. They flourished until the black plague came, convincing many of the Catholic townspeople they were being punished for harboring Jews. As a result the Jews were driven from Speyer and were allowed to take nothing with them except their name. According to Beth, the names Spiro or Shapiro originated in this community. We visited the “baths” where the Jews went to become ceremonially clean. It’s so hard to fathom all the centuries of life, death, joy, and heartbreak represented in the ancient stones of these places.
As we rode our bikes back across the bridge spanning the Rhein I had to sing “Latter Days.” After all, when else will I be Over the Rhein? 🙂 We arrived back in St. Leon, tired, saddle-sore, and very satisfied. We spent the evening at the Zirnfus’s house, watching Christine’s ballet recitals on DVD, then watching her perform an original dance live. Christine is fifteen and adores ballet. She’s also quite the creative little choreographer. It was fun watching her shine at what she loves. Aaron is thirteen. They are biological siblings adopted at six and four. They’re happy, responsible, open-hearted kids. Jeff and Kim are loving, patient parents providing a nurturing environment with the discipline and encouragement these kids need to thrive. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Tomorrow it’s downtown Heidelberg with its castle, cathedral, and more. Back soon . . .