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First days in a new (old) world

Josef drove Larry and me to the train stop at Kanzem. Larry and I sat on the bench in the concrete shelter and talked about my extraordinary first day in a foreign country. I could only contrast the new world I experienced with my own. Buildings of timbers and plaster lined Saarburg’s streets. Nowhere stood a house made completely of wood. The Fricks’ kitchen, its stove and refrigerator, were tiny compared to those in my apartment. The streets were narrower, the cars smaller, and the houses older. I felt as if I discovered something that all the books I’d read in school did not cover and could not reveal.

Larry convinced me that we should buy me a special train ticket that was good on any train in Germany for a month. We took a train to Trier, but the people there told us that the Bundes Bahn had changed the rule earlier that month and such bargains were only for German youth and students. Larry thought to go down to a rural station where they may not have read the train company bulletin. Sure enough, in Merzig we could buy the cheap youth card. I’d been raised on the idea of a dynamic American contrasted with a stolid Europe groaning under the weight of its many rules. I would learn the noise of so many rules provides cover for a friendly bureaucrat to shrug, wink, or simply stamp you past such hurdles.

I have little recollection of how much I was paying for my first rounds on German trains. I had only a few dollars. Larry traveled on trains with a forged unlimited Eurail Pass. Each month before the pass expired, he somehow lifted the expiration date off the pass and wrote in a new one. It worked well for him, I supposed, because in the six months he’d been there, he presented the pass to dozens of conductors who hadn’t detected a problem. I watched my precious dollars, converted to Deutschmarks at a bank in Saarburg, cross the counter. But now with the month pass in my pocket, I felt that for a while, at least, I wouldn’t have to worry about where to lay my head. Trains and stations would be my home.

The train took us back to Trier where we boarded one headed toward Koblenz. Leaving Trier, the train climbed up out of the valley and sprinted across a plain of volcanic and heavily forested hills. This was the Eifel—a stretch of rounded volcanic cones interlaced with steep ravines and streams. When the train fell back into the valley at Bullay, I kept my face plastered against the window. The fabled vineyards of the Mittlemosel climbed the faces of slate cliffs first on one side of the river and then the other. I watched men and boys high above the river working the little plots of vines. They looked as small as insects teetering on precarious rock walls. Chutes and lifts rose to them from the valley floor. It was like looking at postcards.

At Koblenz, we waited for a train down the Rhein to Frankfurt. The station sat in a squat and sturdy building of limestone and slate. A great arched window let light into the vaulted great room where a series of doors let out the back onto a set of platforms and awnings. A baker sold his wares just inside the front door, and a little gift shop operated nearby. So much of my future travel emanated from this train station that it became a type by which I judged all train stations greater and smaller, foreign and domestic.

Through Koblenz, the train took me through a land with architecture as solid as Germans themselves. The tall buildings of the center city soon faded into two- three-story houses of slate roofs and stucco, backed with small yards, that stood nearly adjacent one another, and often connected. We sped by kleingarten, little parcels of land with vegetable and fruit tree gardens that people from the crowded city maintained. Soon, we traveled into smaller towns and their pedestrian structures.

Our compartment had six seats in a car with similar compartments its whole length. I came from a city built for cars. Kansas City’s sprawl made car travel the only way around outside the city’s buses, which I’d never ridden. We sat in the section with an older couple, who kept to themselves as Larry and I chattered away about what he’d been doing since he left Kansas City and how I landed in Germany.

Soon, the train rolled into the Rhein River Valley. I’d only heard of this magnificent stream and had never seen a picture of it. The train made its way from the river over the heights and into the steep vineyards of the Mittlerhein. The vineyards of the Rheingau rose from the banks of the river to the tops of the great hills and cliffs above. We made several stops in a row at towns whose names I recognized from wine labels: Lorch, Assmanshausen, and Rüdesheim.

We detrained at Frankfurt. The station sticks in my mind after all these years. It was many times the size of the station in Koblenz. The massive terminal with its ticket counters and shops spread over what seemed a mile. Even more impressive were the great train sheds where tens of trains stood waiting to depart. Steel-truss roofs stood over the trains, capturing the noise of the crowd and the trains in a cacophony of humanity and metal. Foot traffic was heavy and people hurried everywhere. Larry and I were on our way east and in no hurry. We could take one train or another. It didn’t matter.

We walked out of the station and ducked into a bakery across the street. The glass cases held all kinds of treats new to me. Besides the ubiquitous and varying kinds of German bread loaves, the cases were filled with brötchen and feinbackwaren, including cakes, strudels, and cookies. I chose a brötchen with ham and cheese, and a palmier heart.

When you’re young and the world about you is new, things take on new aspects and meanings. That brötchen was my first taste of German food, and it was wonderful. The dinner at the Fricks was homemade and didn’t really represent German food to me, at least as I imagined it. The bread I bought from the baker’s had no spread and no condiments. Just plain crusty bread, sliced cured ham, and a slice of gouda. I’m sure that being hungry had a lot to do with the way that tiny loaf tasted. I ate it with joy and brushed the bread crumbs from my jacket.

This was Germany! I said to myself, a land I’d seen in a hundred movies and television advertisements. I’d never imagined I’d be here. This was the stuff of dreams.


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  1. I hope this is the start of your new book.

    • Yes. It’s part of the new book. I have a manuscript in progress. I’m just looking for an agent now. Hard, heartbreaking work. But I’m persistent and the book will find a publisher sooner or later.

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