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An American in Germany (again)

Coming home is always the hardest part. I love my wife and kids. I like having the routines of waking and writing and reading, school and colleagues. I’ve built a good life for myself with the help of my family. But when I’m underway, I don’t miss it. In the matter of homesickness, I know home will be there when I return. Why would I miss what’s I know isn’t going anywhere?

I spent just twelve days away, leaving the morning of Friday, May 17, and returning to the bosom of home on May 29 at 3 a.m. Given allowances for faulty airline connections and delays, I spent two days underway on airplanes and trains. Between the coming and going, I spent ten gloriously warm days in the embrace of relationships very few people have.

These differences between the hustle and change of American life gave me an atmosphere in which to enjoy the presence of friends and people I consider family. I spent most of my time in the village of Wawern outside the ancient Roman city of Trier. There, Josef and Marlies Frick, people closer to me than my own parents, put me up in their basement apartment and allowed me run of the house for the duration of my stay with them. They also gave me the opportunity to invite a couple of friends for a few days’ visit. My old friend Udo Bethke took a few days off from his art and architectural glass workshop to travel to Wawern. Eddy Harris, the author, filmmaker, and social critic, arrived shortly after Udo.

In many ways, I wanted to show off my friends to Josef and Marlies. Udo and Eddy are unendingly interesting and intelligent people. At the same time, I wanted the pair to meet the people who have taught me more about being a mature human being than nearly anyone in my life. Together, we spent three glorious days getting to know one another and having the kinds of conversations that I don’t often get to have in my walking-around life. The moments together possessed weight and neither Eddy or Udo came away without some emotional difficulty.

After their departure, Josef, Marlies, and I spent the rest of the week taking in as much of our company as we could, all of us knowing that, due to their age and my distance, this might be the last time I see them. Due to this fact, we all enjoyed the kind of harmony and closeness I have experience with my very closest friends and my wife.

Besides being with my friends and Marlies and Josef, I reveled once again in being in Germany, where I spent the most formative years of my twenties. The country is a strange place in that reasonableness and sanity prevail over the bloated tendencies of modern American franchise commerce.

An American tourist recognizes the Fatherland as western. Life is similar in priority and routine to that we know in the States. They are capitalists, after all. But remarkable differences exist between American and German life. Being with Josef and Marlise, reminded me how much I love the way Germans eat—reasonable proportions and emphasis on colorful plants as opposed to the gigantism decidedly carbohydrate-ridden and fatty American diet. The baker, butcher, and vegetable dealer make daily life a thing of ease. Germans have their grocers where a wise shopper can stock up for the long term—they are the inventors of Aldi. But fresh brötchen and cuts of wurst for the breakfast table remains something decidedly German.

Eddy, Udo, and I whiled away a day in Trier. The city reminded me what American cities often lack. The wonders of street food range from the Turkish and Middle Eastern gyro stands to the sacred German Fritten Bude, where a generous portion of fries with mayonnaise and a bratwurst sandwiched between two halves of a brötchen lined with sharp mustard create a royal repast. The pedestrian zones at the center of German cities of any size give the wanderer a variety of ice cream, wine, and beer stands.

Our travels out of Wawern left me wondering again at the quaintness of our Western European brothers and sisters. There is such a thing as a young German mother with a stroller, in whose way the wise do not stand. Campgrounds remind me of suburban developments or really nice trailer parks (the differentiation of which remains a matter of opinion). At cafés, men at tables drink small glasses of beer and wine play scat or dice. Germans take to every river and creek with canoes, kayaks, and boats of all sizes. Houseboats the size of ships course through the German countryside while little brethren the size of johnboats dither about them like swarms of swallows in migration.

At the same time, fairy-tale castles top pointy little peaks above story-book villages. I spent much of my time in the Mosel and Saar River valleys, where villages with castles wrap around every bend. Their aspects strike at the heart of stereotypes Americans learn from children’s stories. As an example, Josef, Marlies, and frequented Saarburg, a picturesque and prosperous small town of about 7,000. It sits on the bluffs above the Saar River about twenty miles east of Luxemburg city. The castle ruins—walls, foundations, and four-story keep—sits on a sharp ridge below which the town descends to the banks of the river. Vineyards climb from the banks of Saar tributaries into forested hill tops. And among it all, the old town with houses dating to the 1400s, give over to a pleasant square lined with art galleries, jewelry and watch dealers, and the occasional lawyer.

When we weren’t underway, talking, or walking, I snuck in time alone. Art and pictures Josef’s and Marlies’ kids drew and painted line the walls of the house. Writing in my journal and staring off into the vineyards, I felt comfortable in the confines of a quiet and thoughtful house rife with history and generous love. The old couple has seen their share of troubles. Of five children, only two survive. They have overcome severe economic heartache and the death of most of their friends. This made the house, the feeling in it, complicate and deep, a perfect place in which to reflect on life and its course.

For my final two days, I took the train to Koblenz to meet my old friend Ivo. Again, the time was too short, and I was determined to remember every moment. We conversed long hours on his back patio, watching the little bat flutter between his tall hedges and fly out into the age-old orchard of full-sized apple trees and meadow, where horses lazily grazed. I wrote down every detail in my journal and Ivo let me have the time to do just that. My desperation was to remember as much as I could, something of which I despair despite my efforts.

Leaving Ivo was incredibly difficult. Ten full days was too short a time to spend with people so full of life and wonder. Ivo demonstrated that every day should be a celebration of another 24 hours of being alive. The Fricks showed me how my elder days should look. All of them—Eddy, Udo, Ivo, Josef, Marlies—confirmed that I should always be on the lookout for what’s new and different while being aware of the wonder of home. I should be flexible and adaptable and never turn away a stranger. Ten days with friends was not nearly enough. But it was long enough to refresh my outlook and give me energy I need to get along in the coming days.

When I dozed on the planes that took me back home, I dreamed of a world in which the vagaries of everyday life lead only to more wonder, to new and fabulous friends, to revel in close friends, and to remember more. If there’s anything my trip to Germany taught me, it’s that time is too short to forget.

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