In the King’s Footsteps (Day 3) Lake Ammer

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.


35

On long hikes, I like to start early. The air is still cool, there is less lethal car traffic, and it leaves me with more time to take breaks along the way.

But Reinhard is sleeping late, and I don’t want to leave his house without saying goodbye. A few hours after me, he wakes up, goes to the bakery, prepares a full breakfast, and the discussion from the previous evening continues. In the end, I don’t put on my boots until 10:45. My goal today was to reach Diessen, Raisting, Wessobrunn and Paterzell. This has already become infeasible.

On the other hand, I have no more overnight stays fixed anyway, so I can continue the pilgrimage as slowly as I like and in the evening, I can drop to the ground wherever the Holy Spirit commands me to.

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And it gives me the opportunity to cheat a little. In a place called Fischen, I have barely taken the rucksack from my shoulders and stuck out my thumb to shorten the 4 km to Diessen, as the first car stops. Not because of me, but because the driver’s daughter lost her pacifier. But he sees how happy I am about him stopping and invites me to get into the backseat next to the baby.

“Where do you want me to drop you off?” the father asks.

I need some time to write down the experiences of the previous day before new ones push their way into my memory and possibly get mixed up, faded or even lost.

“Is there a beautiful park in Diessen?” I therefore ask .

“A park? No. Diessen is just a small place, nothing special here.”

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Well, then I’ll go to the harbor at Lake Ammer, that should be a relaxing place to write as well.

Here, a blue dot on a white background is flying in the wind. The “One World Flag” is a worldwide project, whose flags are sewn in Diessen. This fits with my blog, which is also read in almost every country of the world.

Apart from me, an elderly couple is sitting by the lake, luring the swans with dog food, while their little dog is roaming around sadly, wondering why he is not getting as much attention. If the swans don’t get enough food fast enough, they are hissing like hell. Only the watchful eyes of passers-by keep them from eating their own fluffy baby swans. If anyone were to consider these barbaric beasts as great animals, they would have to be as crazy as Ludwig II.

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A short walk reveals that Diessen is by no means a boring backwater, but a stylish little town with a wealth of art and culture.

The gardens, even the backyards, seem like open-air museums. One of them has a wooden box for depositing haikus. Even the former railroad signal station has been turned into an art gallery. Many residents are apparently on their summer vacation and have placed wood-carved substitutes in the garden to look after the cats in the meantime. (Many people don’t know that I offer these essential services professionally, but for free, and that I would particularly love to do that in a nice little town like Diessen.)

For centuries, Diessen has been known for art and craftsmanship. In former times there were the potters, glaziers, tinsmiths and art blacksmiths. But also composers like Carl Orff or painters like Carl Spitzweg lived and worked here. There is more art here than in some metropolises.

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It’s obvious that Diessen has a completely different population than Starnberg. More normal. More pleasant. More social, too, because instead of Versace stores there are second-hand shops run by the Red Cross and other non-profit organizations. Here, people donate. The millionaires in Starnberg are swindling and evading taxes.

Lake Ammer was often derogatorily called “the farmers’ lake” in contrast to Lake Starnberg, which was called “the princes’ lake”. I can hardly distinguish a potato from a pumpkin myself, but I feel more comfortable with the farmers.

40

Circus William, which is in town for a few days, is also asking for donations: “Animal food for 40 camels,” it says on donation boxes affixed to fences and lampposts.

In case one of the camels won’t make it, the kebab chefs are already sharpening the knives.

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The British telephone box, which was converted into a little library, is probably a donation by the twin town of Windermere. The pretty little town on Lake Ammer and the charming town in the Lake District, that’s finally a town twinning that makes sense. Not as desperate as Winston-Salem throwing itself into the arms of Nassau on the Bahamas. Or Atlanta, which thinks it is playing in the same league as Tbilisi.

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Diessen can be recognized from far away by the cathedral enthroned on a hill. The church is known as one of the most splendid ones in Bavaria, so I feel an obligation to the education-hungry readers that keeps pushing me uphill over the aching objection of my tired legs.

Well, it is splendid, but tasteful is something else.

And the German-nationalistic slogans above the lists of those who died in World War I are rather disturbing.

“For it is better for us to fall in battle than to witness the misfortune of our people.”

No, that is not better, because it is a false alternative. Maybe the church hasn’t noticed it yet, but the fighting and dying was the misfortune. And by the way: Other peoples have a right to avoid misfortune, too, including being spared the invasion of German troops, who really had no business in Belgium and elsewhere.

“To the fallen in memory, to the living in recognition, to the coming generations for emulation!”

No thanks, I don’t see anything worth emulating here.

Everywhere there are discussions about statues of slave traders, colonial rulers, confederate generals and Kaiser Wilhelm II, but in the churches there is so much nonsense that it makes you sick. That’s where one could start to clean up.

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And then I find a park after all. And what a park! Schacky Park is more than a hundred years old, and it looks every year that it has seen. Steps are broken and sinking into the ground. Plant arms entwine around columns. The water fountains have dried up.

Wonderful! Much better than those posh parks, where every plant is trimmed and manicured. For me, this is a paradise. Good thing that the royal treasurer Baron von Schacky diverted enough thalers into his own pockets to acquire these 18 hectares, cultivate them and then let them become overgrown and decay romantically.

The park on the outskirts of the city seems to have been completely forgotten indeed. I do not see any other walkers, let alone any other vagabonds. And thus, I chose this park as the sleeping place for today. When I tell people that I sleep in parks, they imagine cruelly cold nights. But in some parks, you feel like in a castle. A castle just for myself.

But what if it rains, the concerned readers ask, still remembering last night (chapter 32).

Then I will find something against the rain, I reply carelessly and continue to explore the park until I really find something. A monopteros!

And even with curtains on all sides, to be lowered in case of a storm or other disturbing events.

This city is so social, everything has been thought of, even for destitute travellers. Thank you, I really appreciate this!

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Penny- and parent-less children are thought of as well. Right behind Schacky Park, the first SOS Children’s Village in Germany was opened in 1958. Here, the orphans who managed to free themselves from the child-abusing monastery schools (see chapter 27) find a new home.

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I hide my backpack into a bush, probably a completely exaggerated precaution, go to get a camel kebab and take a stroll through the park, remembering the history of ornamental hermits. In the past, when such parks still came with castles, some lords and ladies considered it decorative to keep a hermit in their park. These were supposed to live in a (usually artificial) cave or hut, were not allowed to shave, and provided exoticism and conversation at garden parties, a purpose for which people nowadays have dogs or children.

Well, in the old days, there was still work for people like me.

But now, everything has been made redundant. Very sad.

46

Into my dreams of old times, there burst a phone call and modern times. Michael, whom I only know online so far, read about the hike on my blog and is currently on vacation at Lake Ammer.

“Would you like to come by?”

“I’d love to!”

However, he lives in Breitbrunn, on the other side of the lake, which is completely the opposite direction of the planned hike.

“Then take the steamer,” he suggests. It leaves Diessen at 4 p.m. and zigzags to Breitbrunn for an hour and a half via Riederau, Herrsching and Utting. That sounds more tempting than walking around the entire lake. And besides, this is how I can justify all decisions: The readers also want to experience a romantic cruise and not just follow my boring steps on some forest paths. Right?

But there is no ship going back that day. So I have to cheekily ask Michael, who probably just wanted to meet for a beer, whether I can stay for the night.

“We’ll think of something,” he reassures me.

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When I arrive at the harbor, out of breath and with only a few minutes to spare before the punctual departure, I am very happy about the decision. Because it allows me to present you the trip on a paddle steamer.

A beautiful ship, driven by two wooden wheels, like the steamers on the Mississippi. Lots of wood inside, too. The taps in the bathroom are gold-plated.

After a 70 year break, it is the first paddlewheel ship to be launched again, the Kaleun proudly announces. It’s a pity that the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles had brought all this maritime innovation to a full stop. However, he admits, the ship only looks like a steamboat. In reality, the paddle wheels are driven by two diesel engines, each of them harnessing 520 hp. But when you consider the capacity of 500 passengers, that’s still a better cost/benefit ratio than all those overpowered fat vehicles on land.

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The public address system provides information of the type you usually receive on boat trips and which must already be annoying for daily commuters: Third largest lake in Bavaria. Up to 81 meters deep. Something wide, something long, 47 square kilometers in size. So there are states that are smaller than Lake Ammer (Sint Maarten, Tuvalu, Nauru, Monaco and of course the Vatican, but the entertainment officer doesn’t tell you that, maybe because there are no guests from overseas on board this year).

Because neither I nor you want to hear anything about the Würm glaciation or about endemic whitefish, I grab an imaginary beer mug from the closed on-board restaurant and get ready to finally answer the historical questions that have been burning under your nails since the first leg of the journey and that are pressing and pushing with each additional leg like blisters under your feet.

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From the ship, I can see Andechs Abbey, which I visited only yesterday, and remember the vow made there (chapters 24-26) to tell you something about the good old days of secularization.

Secularization refers to confiscation of church property, usually land and monasteries, but also art treasures or libraries, by the state. This went as far as the annexation and incorporation of entire ecclesiastical principalities.

There had been some efforts in this direction before, but from 1802 on, Bavaria made a grand clean sweep. Almost all monasteries, cloisters, imperial abbeys and ecclesiastical principalities were nationalized. (This was the invention of communism, long before Marx and Lenin!) Only some monasteries were left as so-called extinction monasteries. There, the existing monks were still allowed to pray to no avail, but the monastery was barred from the transfer market and could not draft any new players.

The project was carried out the way Germans like to carry out things, i.e. with military precision. The first victims were the monasteries of the mendicant orders, for whom nobody else moved a finger. (“It’s their own fault that they are poor,” the rich often think of the poor.) Into the rich prelate orders, Bavaria sent commissars who listed all the gold, incense, and myrrh that was there. In 1803, the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss, which I won’t attempt to translate and which I will instead leave as anecdotal reason for the fact that German Scrabble boards are three times as wide as English ones, was passed. With it, the Holy Roman Empire gave the member states a free hand over the monasteries. Bavaria struck immediately, expropriating as mercilessly as the Land Reclamation Committee for the Construction of the Baikal-Amur Railway. Yet more evidence that prayers do not help.

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Unfortunately, this secularization had two shortcomings:

First, only the independent monasteries and prince-bishops were expropriated, but not the Catholic or Protestant churches as such. The ordinary parish churches and cathedrals remained untouched. A missed opportunity.

Secondly, the churches have meanwhile secured fat compensation payments for the former expropriations. I could now confuse everyone with the Concordat between the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Holy See of 1817, why Bavaria pays the bishops’ salaries, the Concordat of the Free State of Bavaria of 1924, the introduction of church tax, the Concordat of the German Reich of 1933, the concordat professorships, as well as the question why the articles of the Weimar Constitution on religious matters still apply today.

Article 138 of the 1919 Constitution of the Weimar Republic demanded that the states replace the compensation payments with a one-time payment, but the German Reich was supposed to pass the framework legislation. This never happened. By the time the Basic Law of 1949, the constitution of West Germany, provided a new chance to clear up the mess, the matter had already become so conspicuously complicated that Article 140 of the Basic Law simply ordered the partial continued validity of the Weimar Constitution, hoping that no one would notice. In fact, no one seems to have noticed, because in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the constitutionally demanded one-time payment to end all ongoing compensation payments has never happened either.

And so, for more than 100 years, German taxpayers have been paying subsidies to the Catholic and Protestant churches because of the secularization of 200 years ago. Mind you, from the general tax revenue; this has nothing to do with church tax. The atheists are paying for the bishops as well. But well, this year it’s only a paltry 656 million euros. And the church shows its gratitude by not burdening state authorities with charges of child abuse, instead “taking care” of such criminal matters internally.

51

As the ship docks in Herrsching for a short stop, my eye catches a little castle in the spa gardens, which is modelled on an Italian noble palace.

Today it houses the municipal adult education center, where the smart ones become even smarter, and a wedding hall, where the not so smart ones ruin their lives.

I could tell you a lot more smart things, but I’m smart enough to recognize when the absorbability of the smart readership is exhausted. So let’s look at the lake, the mountains and the sun instead, let’s enjoy the gentle chugging aboard this marvel of German engineering, and let’s be happy about the invitation to Breitbrunn.

52

Michael is already waiting at the landing stage, where he informs me: “My wife was not at all enthusiastic about the idea of inviting a complete stranger.”

Oh, oh, the two of them are on vacation themselves, and now I intrude with my vagabondry. But when the lady of the house sees me a little later, her fear immediately gives way to maternal instinct, and she prepares fried potatoes with fried eggs. All evening, I will be served so much cheese, sausage and bread that it will sustain me for days.

Equally sustaining is the conversation with Michael. He has a packed life, reviews development aid projects all over the world, was a cameraman for the Foreign Legion in French Guyana, teaches photography in Sri Lanka, helps with the integration of refugees in my home town of Amberg and makes collections and deliveries for a food bank. All of this with the efficiency of a manager.

The hours on the terrace run quickly while we lose ourselves in stories from New York, Lagos and Vienna. Michael’s wife has already gone to bed. She calls him a few more times, ostensibly to ask if we need culinary or alcoholic replenishment, in reality probably to say that we should finally be quiet, because we are keeping the whole house awake.

Speaking of the house: There are two of them on the property, so despite my unplanned appearance I get one for myself. It’s the older and more beautiful one. It is furnished in a rustic style, with wooden floors, oak cabinets and a terrace with a view of the lake. In the fridge, there is Veuve Moreaux champagne and Bombay Gin.

And a few hours ago, I thought I would spend the night in the park.

One of the books I am re-reading on the trip is “The Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who on his walk through Europe was sometimes invited to manors and castles. At least today, I am just as lucky.

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Tomorrow, it will be a completely different story.

Then, you can expect: The hardest day of the trek, a haunted graveyard, and the truth about 5G.

Links:

Posted in Germany, History, Photography, Religion, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Hiiumaa, the real Adventure Island

I have been on lots of islands, some of them far away like Australia or Easter Island. After paying a lot and polluting heaps of air to get there, I was wondering if it’s really worth it. And as a European, I have to say, it probably isn’t. Because there are thousands of islands all around Europe that are easy and cheap to get to.

Sadly enough, most Europeans don’t even know Sark or Zvërnec. And that’s why they toil for years to afford a trip to Galapagos, when they could simply walk out the front door and hitchhike to Hiiumaa.

Hiiumaa?

See, you never heard of Estonia’s second-largest island!

To be fair, neither had I until I lived in the Baltics in 2012. Rasmus, a young man from Estonia, was going to visit his grand-aunt on the island of Hiiumaa. He asked around if somebody wanted to join him. As trips to unknown islands in the colder region of Europe during the colder part of the year go (it was the end of October), not many people expressed their interest. I was one. The other was Rolando from Costa Rica, who was most certainly a spy because he spoke Estonian. “What’s there to spy on an island?”, you wonder, but you will be surprised.

The two of them went by ferry and I, for I was not as much of an environmentalist back then as I am now, had found a flight from Tallinn to Hiiumaa for less than 20 euros. But then it began to snow. A proper snow storm, which wouldn’t ease. No way the plane would take off in this weather. “That’s the end of the trip,” I thought, disappointed.

But this was Estonia, and although it was the first snow of the season, the airport was prepared. When planes took off, they simply had snowplows drive in front of them to clear the runway.

As we walked onto the airfield, already in the darkness of the night, I was almost freezing to death and blown away by the wind. It was a small plane, for 17 passengers. I was the only foreigner, it seemed, so the flight attendant came to my seat and translated each announcement for me personally. The plane was shaking and rocking and jumping in the air. I held on to the seat in front of me with both hands. Usually, I look at the other passengers in such situations, thinking: “Everyone else is flying this route more often than me, and they are perfectly calm. So this is nothing unusual.” On that day, however, the Estonian passengers looked equally scared.

But we made it.

The airport on Hiiumaa was just one building, where the family running the airport seemed to live, because it felt like walking through their living room as I picked up my bag. They had a beautiful cat strolling around, fat and golden, like Garfield. There was a bus waiting, and the driver took everyone to exactly where they wanted to go.

Rasmus’ grand-aunt didn’t have space for everyone, so I had booked a room with someone else. A family in Kärdla, which one could call the capital city of the island, although this makes it sound much grander than it is, had a separate building next to their house and showed me to my bed upstairs. When I asked for a key, they said: “You don’t need a key. We don’t lock the doors to the houses here.” I love islands for that.

The next morning, I found that they had deposited bread and cheese and hearty salami in the fridge for me. Very nice! I wondered how they could ever make a profit with this kind of extra service, because I had paid very little for the room, but I took a happy bite from everything, leaving the rest for dinner.

And then it was time to meet Rasmus and Rolando.

“How was the flight?”, Rasmus asked.

I told him, especially the part about everyone else looking scared, too.

“Of course they were scared. Because they all knew that last year, on the first night of snowfall, the plane crashed.”

Thankfully, the translating flight attendant had withheld that piece of information from me. And luckily, I had already arranged to return to the mainland with Rasmus and Rolando by car and ferry. No more flights for me.

Besides plane crashes, there seemed to be many mysterious deaths on Hiiumaa, because in every forest, there were cemeteries, hidden far from the road. Rasmus, who had spent his childhood on the island, found the way based on certain trees which to me looked like all the other million trees.

At the time, I didn’t spot it, but one of the crosses marked the grave of a similar trip to Hiiumaa two years before. Had I noticed it, I would have had a lot of questions. And I would have been more careful.

During the Soviet Union, Hiiumaa was a restricted military zone. This meant that foreigners and even most Soviet or Estonian citizens weren’t allowed to visit. The people who already lived on the island were allowed to remain, though.

And there were still plenty of signs from the Soviet time.

Like at most houses on the island, the doors to the bunkers stood open, which we interpreted as an invitation. Rasmus, a very organized fellow, had told us to bring flashlights.

I didn’t manage to take any good photos, but in some bunkers, we climbed down four levels, squeezing ourselves through narrow gaps in the concrete, holding on to rusty iron ladders. “Be careful not to get stuck on a nail, or you can get tetanus,” Rasmus warned us, and I was wondering: “Isn’t there much more danger in us getting lost? Or suffocating? Or getting stuck? Or the roof caving in?” Little did I know that this was nothing compared with the situations we would still get ourselves into.

But first some lighthouses.

Sadly, these were not open for us to walk into.

Nor was the Military Museum. But Rasmus knew the person who had a key, he picked it up, we guided ourselves through the museum, and we left some money on the table. As almost any place in Europe, Hiiumaa had been occupied by the German Army twice, once in World War I and once in World War II. And, as any place sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union, it had been fought over several times in World War II. Because the second of the Soviet occupations lasted much longer and into living memory, I had the impression that the time of the Nazi occupation (and especially the Estonian collaboration in the Holocaust) was sometimes glossed over too readily.

From World War II, the seas around the island are littered with shipwrecks, but a more recent naval disaster weighs more heavily on everyone’s mind. In 1994, the ferry MS Estonia sank northwest of Hiiumaa, killing 852 people. “For a few years after the accident, there were still bodies being washed ashore,” Rasmus remembered. Facing the direction of the maritime mass grave, there is a simple memorial.

In the evening, Rasmus and Rolando went to a sauna, which, after they explained the concept to me, I found a very dubious way to spend one’s leisure time. So, I walked to my accommodation alone through the cold night, guided by the full moon, which other people might deem a rather dubious way to spend one’s leisure time.

I opened the fridge, looking forward to bread, cheese and salami – and saw that I was not the only guest at the house. In the morning, I had inadvertently consumed what was never intended for me. Shocked about the faux-pas, I withdrew to bed.

It rarely happens to me, but that night, I had run out of books. As I laid awake, I wrote my first story with a more creative aspiration than simply reporting the facts. And I learned that a secluded spot, cold climate and lack of distraction are important factors in my writing, a lesson which I have heeded far too rarely since.

After we had been underground the day before, the two young intrepid gentlemen wanted to climb some towers, not knowing that I am terribly afraid of heights. Someone must have had a lot of time (and wood) on their hands and built a replica of the Eiffel Tower. He wasn’t home, but there was a jar into which we deposited one euro each.

It looks a bit shaky, doesn’t it? And the wind was blowing. But then I thought, the structure must weigh hundreds, if not thousands of kilos, so three slim guys won’t make much difference.

The higher we climbed, the more I realized that someone was in the process of rebuilding a whole Disneyland from wood.

I was ready to launch a tirade against deforestation until, finally at the top, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There were still plenty of trees around.

This tower was not the last one to climb, nor the scariest.

No, that one was okay.

But the next one, the concrete tower, had obviously exceeded its sell-by date and was about to collapse.

Large junks of the interior staircase were missing and we had to jump over abysses or use wooden planks to climb up. Then, we had to crawl through a window, jump from wooden plank to wooden plank around the outside to reach rusty metal ladders and climb to the top, where we sat on the “balcony”.

I have no idea why I went all the way up. But reflecting on this eight years later, I can at least say that I did mature in some way.

Actually, I learned the lesson quickly, because at the next tower, by the sea, I did refuse to climb to the top. That one really looked too shaky.

And the view from inside the bunker was beautiful enough.

Speaking of the sea, and unexpectedly hitting you with heavy history, people always associate the Iron Curtain with the Berlin Wall. But the Baltic Sea was the Iron Curtain, too.

And that is one reason why the whole island is criss-crossed with trenches, bunkers, watchtowers and barracks that now stand empty.

There are also remnants of villages, but even without taking a census, I had the feeling that the population was in decline.

Some of the churches were still kept in good shape, though.

Okay, the last one was not a church, but this very useful building was to be found in a churchyard.

Since Rasmus’ last visit, the gas station had closed.

But, as with everything else on the island, this just meant that we left some money in a jar next to the pump. And off we went, onto the ferry to the mainland, thinking once again of MS Estonia.

“If you come back in a few months, we can save the money for the ferry,” Rasmus said, confusing his friends from warmer climatic zones. In winter, the sea freezes over and the ferries stop. The 26 km between Hiiumaa and the Estonian turn into the longest ice road in Europe.

“You take some precautions, and nothing should happen,” Rasmus said. “Turn off the radio, don’t buckle up, have your backpack in your lap and the windows open. Just listen to the ice and when you hear a cracking sound or you feel your car sinking, grab your bag and run.”

“Does it happen that cars sink?”, I asked incredulously.

“Yeah, sure,” Rasmus replied, as if speaking about a minor inconvenience.

“And what then?”

“You file a claim with the insurance company.”

Back on the mainland, the snowstorm was still raging.

But our host had one last idea on the way home: “In Haapsalu, there is a Soviet military airfield, as abandoned as everything you have seen on Hiiumaa. Let’s see if the gate is open.”

Of course it was open, and in the darkness of the night and the cover of the snowstorm, Rasmus used the runways to test to what speeds he could take his car. On the ice. There was no way to see more than a few meters through the falling snow, but I think we went up to 180 km/h.

“Don’t worry, guys,” he said, “I know that the runway is exactly 2500 meters long and I am watching the odometer.” It worked, but it was close.

We did a few more laps, one with the lights switched off, and Rasmus explained what was already obvious to everyone:

“My real dream was always to become a race-car driver.”

“And what work do you do instead?”, I asked the tower-climbing, tunnel-exploring, race-car driving, ice-breaking, death-defying and risk-taking young man, expecting him to be a stuntman or a Special Forces demolition diver.

“I work at a bank, in the risk-assessment department.”

Links:

  • More about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
  • Tourist information for Hiiumaa.
  • If everyone contributes a bit, you won’t need to wait another eight years before I go to Hiiumaa again. Next time, I would definitely stay longer and explore more of the island, because what you have seen is only a small part. And visiting in a different season would be interesting, too.
Posted in Cold War, Estonia, Military, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

In the King’s Footsteps (Day 2) Andechs Abbey

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.


15

Yasmin and Basti are living a vegan-healthy lifestyle and apparently only have health-conscious friends. Because when I ask for a cola for breakfast, they are happy: “Oh, finally someone will drink the bottle of Coca Cola we have had in the cellar for ever.” It expired in May 2018, more than two years ago. Probably a leftover from their high school graduation ceremony.

The rest of the bottle goes into a package which, together with bananas and apples, is supposed to provide me with energy for the journey. Thus, I say goodbye to my new friends well-rested, well-equipped and in good spirits.

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Yasmin’s parents live in Maising, the next village. Since the Corona virus, there are a lot more hikers coming through, they have already told her. “At first they didn’t dare leave the house anymore. They thought all the strangers were bringing the virus into the village.”

Maybe I should walk through the village wearing a face mask. But actually, rain cover is more important, even if only for a few minutes at a time.

Maising is such an insignificant village that it has put up a plaque that, referring to the first documented mention in 1182, at the time of the Crusades and the Genpei War, tries to construe a significance that the village, I am sorry to say, simply does not possess.

At least I learn from this plaque that the General Fellgiebel Barracks now house the German Army’s School of Information Technology, which explains the carefree way the military treated the hikers in chapter 11. The biggest danger there is probably that computer-gaming soldiers think that you are a Pokemon and briefly arrest you.

17

A dog is trotting after a lady on a horse, exhausted, panting, limping. And faithful. Because he could simply stay at home. After all, he knows that the lady will come back home eventually.

Or dogs aren’t as smart as cats, after all.

18

“Are you a pilgrim?”

“A secular pilgrim.”

19

“Nimma lang”, Bavarian for “not much longer”, a sign promises about the way to Andechs Abbey.

But it’s all going uphill. I am making such slow progress on the remaining 5.8 km that once again I walk straight into the midday heat. When I think of the monastery, I don’t imagine any churches or monks, I just dream of a beer garden in the shade of large trees.

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But first comes a chapter from the popular series ” Appearance can be deceptive”. Look at these photos:

JVA Rothenfeld (2)

Isn’t that idyllic?

It is a prison.

The buildings of the former monastic reformatory now house chickens, goats and prisoners behind the barbed wire of Rothenfeld Prison.

The fences don’t seem very insurmountable, though. I don’t see a single guard. This is probably not the high security wing of the Bavarian penal system. Maybe it’s for the millionaires from nearby Starnberg, who have become rich through fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement, I suppose.

A ban on photography prevents me from taking close-ups. On the other hand, when you see a prison like this, you almost want to commit crimes and then write books in the quiet country estate atmosphere.

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At the edge of the prison perimeter, I also find the perfect place to sleep: a bench under a canopy of leaves protecting me against sun and rain.

Unfortunately it is still too early to sleep. But a little bit of rest before the ascent of Mount Andechs is a good idea. In the short time that I am sitting here, I experience everything from sun to rain. The weather will keep changing all day long.

A couple walks by and kindly leashes their dog so that it neither eats nor licks me.

I take the opportunity to ask: “Do you know what kind of prisoners are incarcerated over there?”

They do know: “People like Uli Hoeness.”

Well, I wasn’t that far off with my guess. Uli Hoeness, the president and chairman of the supervisory board of Bayern Munich football club, had evaded 28.5 million euros in taxes. Another prominent inmate was Uwe Woitzig, a banker who was convicted of fraud in the order of several hundred millions.

Prisoners usually come to Rothenfeld Prison at the end of their sentence, when they are already free to leave during the day. This means that they go to work outside, for example for football clubs, banks or other criminal organizations, and return to the prison in the evening to sleep there. For the sake of justice, let us hope that this possibility is not only open to millionaires. (This goes onto my list of things that I need to check personally, so I can report back to you.)

22

The way to Andechs is easy to find. For one thing, the monastery is enthroned on a hill, visible from afar, which is supposed to produce the thirst that can then be quenched with the famous monastery beer.

Second, the path follows the Way of the Cross.

The Way of the Cross is divided in numbered chapters, almost as logically as this blog. At station VII, Jesus sinks down. First the dog, now the god, all of them exhausted creatures.

23

Besides the beer factory, Andechs Abbey runs two expensive restaurants, a store, a drug dealership (“Abbey Pharmacy”). Well, if there weren’t that many people leaving the church, the monks wouldn’t have to be so mercantilistic.

However, they were already quite greedy in the past. In the 9th century, rapacious Rasso brought relics from the Holy Land, i.e. looted art, to Mount Andechs: a piece of the Cross of Jesus, part of the Crown of Thorns and the Holy Three Hosts. Pilgrimages have been documented since 1128 at the latest; not voluntary pilgrimages, by the way, but by order of the Count of Andechs.

At that time there was no monastery yet, but the castle of the Counts of Andechs, who ruled not only over the surrounding fields, but – as Dukes of Merania, Dalmatia, Istria and Croatia – all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Because the winters were warmer there, the Wittelsbach dynasty, already infamous from chapter 3, became envious, destroyed the castle in 1246 and snatched the possessions.

If someone had not put the Alps in between, one could still see Rijeka, this year’s European Capital of Culture, from the monastery garden.

24

It was not until 1455 that Andechs became a Benedictine monastery, though soon a very enterprising one, with a brewery, beer garden and 100,000 bratwurst pilgrims per year.

andechs_28merian29

The Thirty Years War and secularization dampened the influx and profit a little. Even today, the monastery complex still looks oversized. Some of the buildings stand empty, sad about the fact that people are less open to nonsense about Holy Thorn Wreaths. The beer garden, which I had been dreaming about for hours, is closed. On the events calendar for the year 2020, there are little sticky notes: “Postponed!” and “Cancelled!”

25

Oh yes, some people come here for the church. I myself am more on the side of secularization than that of the church, but I have heard that there are Christians among the readership. Hence a few photos of the house with the Holy Tower.

Because I don’t know anything about it, I won’t tell you about frescoes and rococo and high altars. (A sigh of relief from the readers. – But I have not forgotten that I must tell you about secularization at a suitable occasion!)

I am more interested in the pilgrim tablets that earlier hikers brought with them. This corner in the church is a visual guest book, so to speak. And, as is the case with guests, nobody comes without ulterior motives. They want to be cured of diseases. They want to bring in a fat harvest. They want to know the lottery numbers in advance.

But the guests are getting more and more stingy and/or impatient. Nobody paints wooden tablets anymore. The pilgrims of the 20th century have brought a few cheap wooden crosses, which hang behind the church.

26

In the entrance of the church I notice something else.

All over the world there is a debate raging about monuments that are no longer up to date. Statues are toppled, street names are changed, and people claim to be infringed in their fundamental rights when they learn that “gypsy” is not a cool word.

And who will muddle through again? The church. As always. As with the looted art from chapter 23, the churches simply keep quiet and hope that the debate will pass them by. Let the museums apologize or restitute, the church keeps its sticky fingers on the stolen stuff. (Well, if all their pieces of the alleged cross of Jesus were brought back to Jerusalem, one would quickly realize that all the splinters of wood are enough for a hundred crosses, and the charlatanism would be exposed.)

Here, on a war memorial, there is actually still something written about “heroic death” and “firmly faithful to the death”, apparently a Christian martyr cult. If something like that were written in a mosque, the anti-terrorism unit would have been there long ago.

Admittedly, that’s from after World War I, but does that mean you have to leave it there forever, without any comments? I also find it interesting that it mentions “the dear comrades who, as brave Bavarians, protected the honor and existence of the German name”. I don’t know how I could have failed to mention Bavaria’s role in the German wars of the 19th and 20th centuries so far.

But before that, things are becoming even more disturbing in this church of historical revisionists. Let’s jump to the Second World War: “We thank the Lord for visible help in enemy territory”, it says, dated 1943.

I see. So the Christian God was on the side of the Wehrmacht and helped in the wars of aggression, massacres and deportations to concentration camps. Or what else should “visible help in enemy territory” mean? And if it is the land of “the enemy”, why not just stay at home? The monks supposedly can brew beer, but reasoning is not their strength.

Let’s read what the monastery itself writes about this:

“The economically difficult 1920s, the Third Reich and the post-war period weighed heavily on Abbot Bonifaz Wöhrmüller (1919-1951).”

Oh yes, poor German Christians, they suffered so much in the 20th century!

“The economic enterprises had to be restructured, pilgrimage and pastoral care demanded efforts and attention. At the same time, the number of monks and employees decreased.”

Yes, yes, the economy! Just don’t think about or reflect on participation in the Holocaust, on complicity in anti-Semitism, on gains from Aryanization. Whining about fewer monks, but turning a blind eye to the concentration camp in Dachau with its 169 satellite camps, including some in this lovely landscape of Starnberg County.

But the monks simply had more important things to do at the time, one must understand that:

“Despite the Second World War, stucco and frescoes of the pilgrimage church were restored in 1941/42.”

Oh, how I long for a new wave of secularization!

27

While smoking a cigar in the monastery garden and reading, the two main reasons for my slow advance, I seem to look like a really poor pilgrim vagrant, because a family demonstratively but unobtrusively “forgets” two bananas on the bench opposite. This saves me from the usurious inns. Anyway,I feel little inclination to support the Benedictines so that they can pay hush money to victims of sexual abuse.

28

Descending from the monastery into the Kien Valley, I meet a real pilgrim for the first time. She is not planning to walk all the way to Spain, but I learn that the Munich St. James’ Way largely coincides with the King Ludwig Trail that I have been following, only skipping the profane castles at the end and turning towards Lindau instead. This is a lot further than my modest birthday hike, but she is smarter than me, because she only has a small backpack and has already finished her daily stage at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

If I don’t find any Couchsurfing hosts for the next few days, I will be free of constraints and arrangements, really free as a vagabond, and I will probably slow down my pace as well. There are so many places where I could just sit for hours or fall asleep satisfied. The Kien Valley with its high beech trees that shield the sunlight but at the same time allow it to glisten in the lush green, and the eternally rushing stream in the deep gorge is one of these spots.

29

Herrsching may be quite pretty, but it takes all its pride and joy from a suburban train connection to Munich (practical for people who want to abandon the hike now because of political and ideological differences) as well as from its exact location on the 48th northern parallel, which puts the city on a level with Ulan Bator, Le Mans and Donetsk.

Oh yes, there is also a lake here. But this is Lake Ammer and more about that tomorrow.

30

As I stand on the outskirts of Herrsching in front of Mühlfeld Castle, wondering what it is, the sky darkens rapidly. (Later I will learn that the monks of Andechs used it as a summer, bathing and party castle. The difference between nobility and clergy wasn’t all that stark.)

So instead of walking the remaining 6 km, I stick my thumb out. Within less than a minute, a car stops. The young man doesn’t actually have to go to Aidenried, but he is so happy to see a hitchhiker that he insists on driving me there. He used to hitchhike to Innsbruck himself regularly because he had a girlfriend there, and meeting strangers was always great fun.

31

Reinhard, my Couchsurfing host, is not at home yet, so I deposit my backpack in the garden and go on an exploratory tour through the small village. After all, if he doesn’t show up, I have to find an alternative place to sleep.

In front of a farmhouse there is a luxurious sleeping swing, which would certainly be comfortable. But too close to the house.

32

Oh, over there is a chapel under a big tree.

And there is even a large bench under the tree. Perfect.

But at this very moment, all the clouds open up. For a while, the canopy of leaves keeps me dry, but after a few minutes it is already leaking in a hundred places.

In a garden below the chapel, a woman hastily fetches shoes and clothes from outside to save them from the deluge. She sees me, I wave, and she shouts over that I should come down to the terrace to seek shelter. So nice! She even brings me a towel.

Thus I have been sitting on the terrace for quite a while, hoping that the awning will withstand the storm, when two little girls come around the corner and spot me.

“Hello,” I greet them in their own garden.

“Do you need anything?” one of them asks, kind and helpful.

“Oh, thank you,” I say, “your mother has already helped me so much by allowing me to wait out the rain here.”

“Oh, our mom already knows that you are here?”

So apparently, there are families who raise their children in such a way that when they see a stranger in their garden, they don’t get frightened, but instead offer to help. And thus, this farmers’ family from Aidenried not only saved me from soaking wetness, hypothermia and death that day, but also lifted my faith in humanity to a new level.

33

As the low-hanging and deep black clouds take a short break, I quickly run to Reinhard’s house, which is half construction site, half museum.

He already has two other guests, so I get the sofa in the living room. From here I have a wonderful view over Lake Ammer, directly into the sunset, if it wasn’t still grey and cloudy. Hundreds of books are lining the room. Here, I could refuel if I had already consumed all the literature I am carrying with me.

At the age of 78, Reinhard is the oldest Couchsurfing host I have ever stayed with. He was a urologist and in retirement he turned his other talent, which he had already discovered in his youth, into a profession. He went to India for training and to the marble quarries of Da Nang in Vietnam, learned new techniques, and since then the old man, wiry like Clint Eastwood, has been working marble, granite and quartzite into shivas, sphinxes and swans, the latter an order by King Ludwig ll for Hohenschwangau or Neuschwanstein, but never picked up.

Older hosts are great because they have a lot of life experience. When I tell him about Iran, he jumps up and gets an amulet from the dining room: “This is for Imam Ali, I brought it from Isfahan.” He went to Iran with a Volkswagen Bulli when it was still the Kingdom of Persia. Enthusiastically, he relives the journey, from the Swedish girls whom he picked up in Istanbul as they wanted to go to India, to the attempted robbery at the hostel, where the thieves had hidden under the beds and jumped out at night. In the end, the robbers and the robbed were laughing together about the unarmed and harmless attempt to transfer ownership of chattel.

When we somehow get to the subject of volcanoes, he jumps up again and fetches a cannonball sized lump from the balcony: “A lava ejection from Etna. I drove up to the crater rim by car to skim lava for geological-sculptural experiments”. For this purpose, he had a blacksmith make a special trowel with a several meter long handle, which was then taken from him by the Carabinieri at gunpoint, because the lava trade in Sicily seems to be in firm and corrupt hands.

We don’t always agree, neither politically nor about women, where the sculptor, who is mainly interested in shapes and in shaping, shines through, but we talk until late at night.

34

Before the hike, there came warnings of bears, cold, hunger and blisters from the caring community. But the most dangerous thing happens this evening, when I run into a glass door that was cleaned too perfectly.

Fortunately, there is a doctor in the house. “Non-dislocated nasal bone contusion,” Reinhard diagnoses and tells me not to sleep on my stomach or on my side for the next few weeks. After a few days, the pain actually went away and I am still wearing my nose unscathed like a boxer whose strength lies in defense.

Links:

  • Here you can find all articles about the King Ludwig Trail. The report about the next stage will be published next week. Just check in regularly or get an e-mail subscription to make sure that you won’t miss anything.
  • There are more reports about hikes from all over the world.
  • The second day of the hike cost an unbelievable 0 €, which proves that travelling does not have to be expensive. If you can invest a small part of the millions you saved into supporting this blog, you will receive my eternal gratitude and – even more important – more stories.
Posted in Germany, History, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In the King’s Footsteps (Day 1) Lake Starnberg

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Berichts.


1KLW-Uebersicht

I step off the train in Starnberg, ready to walk the 5 km to Berg, the starting point of the King Ludwig Trail, defying the blistering sun and 30 degrees midday heat. Every year for my birthday, I am hiding from well-wishers, presents and telegrams, preferably far away and into nature. In July 2020, a virus is raging, making long journeys if not impossible, then at least impractical.

Thus I decided to explore a piece of Bavaria, my homeland. On the tracks of King Ludwig II, I am going to hike about 110 km from Lake Starnberg, south of Munich, to Füssen, the last town before the Alps. As always, with no or insufficient planning at best, but open for any surprise along the way.

If you have some free time, do come along!

2

In Starnberg, just as I step out of the station, there is already the first change of plan in the form of a ship in the harbor. In a few minutes, it will be sailing to Berg, so I have to decide right away. Well, even Patrick Leigh Fermor took the ship for the first leg of his European tour.

Starnberg Bahnhof mit Schiff

Starnberg Schiff (2)

Anyway, this is not one of those hiking blogs where kilometers and calories are counted, where average speeds are calculated and where records are set. Here, it’s more about the sights to the left and right of the path. And whether you get there on foot, by bike, on the train, on the boat, by hitchhiking or in a hot-air balloon is irrelevant.

In the south I can already see the distant mountains that are my destination. It’s a tempting idea to simply stay on the ship all the way.

Starnberger See Berge am Horizont

“Does this blast sound at every stop?” a woman asks, startled as the ship’s horn blows loudly as it sets off. Like most passengers, she has booked a ticket for the full round trip. I already have to leave the ship in Berg because the esteemed readers want to learn all about the Bavarian kings, especially about Ludwig II. In Berg, there is one of the castles that played a role in the life of Ludwig II – and an even more important role in his mythical death 

3

Unfortunately, I cannot visit the castle, because it still belongs to the royal Wittelsbach family, who live there. No one opens the gate for me.

Schloss Berg

In Bavaria, the revolution of 1918 was rather half-hearted, which is why people who believe that they are something special still occupy castles that should have been nationalized long ago. Something similar happened at the level of the Reich: Because there was no proper expropriation back then, we are still facing legal disputes with the greedy Hohenzollern family.

From their use of Berg Castle, one can guess what kind of people the Wittelsbach dynasty, who had been ruling Bavaria undemocratically since 1180, are. They had the Bavarians slave away in mines to purchase a fleet of 35 ships, powered by rowing slaves, and gondolas for up to 2000 guests, with whom they celebrated decadent feasts on Lake Starnberg.

seefest-ignaz-bidermann

And when the drinking and lakefaring binges with fireworks and firewater had become too boring for them, they went hunting. Not regular hunting, but driving the deer and stags into the water and shooting them there. Not very likeable people, as you can tell.

4

Into the same water, on the same spot, they also drove Ludwig II, who spent his last sad days at Berg Castle. (And shot him, too?)

A cross in the lake marks the spot where the body of the king was found on 13 June 13 1886. Inadequately dressed girls on a small boat are commemorating his majesty and are destroying the gravity of the place and of my photo.

Kreuz für König Ludwig II Starnberger See (2)

Kreuz für König Ludwig II Starnberger See (1)

5

13 June MDCCCLXXXVI, the date of death is written on a column in front of the supposedly Byzantine-Romanesque votive chapel, and some sightseers are trying to decipher it.

Votivkapelle für Ludwig II Berg am Starnberger See (1)

“1776,” someone says.

“But the king lived eighteen hundred something,” interjects a woman, “after all, he already had a telephone in his castle.” Someone then pulls this modern device out of his pocket, calculates a bit around and proudly announces 1886, the correct year. Delighted, they get back on their bikes.

6

I, on the other hand, already experience the first shock of the hike: A snake is gliding down from the steps of the votive chapel. Not some normal snake, but one that is dark black and enormous. The kind of snake that can strangle a man.

And with that, one thing is clear: I will not sleep on the ground, but always look for a bench or a hunter’s tree stand.

7

In consistency with geography, I should now tell you about the end of Ludwig II, but since we haven’t even met him, I consider that a bit premature. Even spoiled kings should stay alive for a bit.

Also in consistency with geography, I have to move north, so I can’t afford the detour to the south, where we would see the Bismarck Tower. That an enormous tower honoring the Prussian Chancellor was erected in Bavaria is surprising enough. But placing this monument only a few kilometers from the place where King Ludwig II was so shamefully executed, that is bold. Because, what many don’t know, but will learn to their great shock in the course of this article, Bismarck was not innocent in the death of the Bavarian king. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the death of the fairy-tale king rests on Bismarck’s conscience almost as much as if he had drowned him himself.

assenhausen_28berg292c_bayern_-_bismarckturm_28zeno_ansichtskarten29

8

The beaches in Starnberg are packed. These are probably the millions of Munich residents who cannot fly on vacation now. There is traffic like in downtown Munich. And on the hiking trails, you have to be careful of cyclists. Especially if you stop to chat with other walkers, the power-cyclists who are interrupted in their endurance training sometimes make their discontent clearly audible and visible.

One could escape to the Museum of Lake Starnberg, which I had planned to do anyway, because a fellow student from my history degree works here. But, and this will be the common thread on this hike, I have been walking too slowly, arriving in Starnberg after 5 pm. Unfortunately, I have to leave early the next morning and will therefore miss the museum, but this does not prevent me from recommending it to you as a non-swimming option for your visit to the lake.

9

Starnberg is a town of millionaires. Drug smugglers, real estate speculators and the King of Thailand, who feels comfortable in the tradition of the Bavarian monarchs, are living here. He was probably the one who brought the king cobra that so frightened me earlier.

Speaking of rulers who don’t live in their own country because they know that they are not that popular: Did you know that Ludwig II, who shaped the image of Bavaria like no other monarch, actually wanted to emigrate and only stayed in Bavaria because he couldn’t get a visa? But more about that in a later part of this saga. Stay tuned!

In front of the houses, there are Porsches and sailing yachts. The boys are talking about whether they would rather have the Maserati Quattroporte or a mansion on Formentera as a birthday present. (I gave myself this one-week hike for my birthday.) The girls are discussing whether a dentist or a plastic surgeon is the better groom.

Life expectancy in Starnberg is 4 to 5 years higher than in the rest of the country. Poverty is one of the major risks of ill health, even in our rich country. If you take a closer look over the next few days, you will be able to guess a few reasons why this is the case.

But today, I am lucky. A couple whom I know nothing about have invited me to spend the night at their house in Starnberg. I have a dark premonition that they are some millionaire snots, where the servant serves dinner and the koi are fed with caviar.

10

As I am sitting by the lake, an elderly couple asks me for directions to the harbor. I may be new to town, but I already know my way around.

Starnberg Blick auf Berge

“Oh, that’s easy: You follow the promenade along the shore, and after maybe 300 meters you will see wooden jetties on the left where the ships dock. If you’re lucky, there’s one right now.”

“Thank you.”

“The first stop of the ship is in Berg, that’s the place where King Ludwig II died. But you have to walk a little bit south from the port, first through the village and then through a nice park, actually more of a forest, until you come either to a chapel or to the cross in the lake. This marks the place where Ludwig II died on 13 June 13 1886”.

“Oh”, says the woman.

“Did he drown?” asks the man.

“That is the question,” I admit. “It is a bit suspicious. Because the king was not alone at the time of his death. His psychiatric consultant Dr. Gudden was with him. And both were found dead.”

“Oh”, says the woman.

“Who is going swimming with his psychiatrist?” asks the skeptical man.

“Not swimming. They went for a walk. I know this all sounds dubious, but it gets even more confusing when I tell you that Ludwig II was not at Lake Starnberg voluntarily. He was abducted from Neuschwanstein on the order of the Bavarian government, which had previously incapacitated him. Section 11 of the Bavarian Constitution of 1818 did indeed give the Council of Ministers the right to take this step, similar to the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution, just that the Bavarian government had more balls than anyone in the Trump Administration. But there remain many unanswered questions, because most of the files have been destroyed or are hidden away in a secret archive”.

“Oh”, says the woman.

The man looks at his watch nervously.

The ship’s horn sounds.

“Oh”, I say.

Not only because the couple missed the last ship for today due to my excessive explanations, but because I accidentally anticipated parts of the story that I actually wanted to tell you later. But whether it was murder or suicide will only be resolved over the next few days.

11

Maisinger Canyon is a somewhat pompous name for a valley crossed by a small stream. But it is beautiful.

Maisingerschlucht (4)

Maisingerschlucht (1)

Maisingerschlucht (5)

Apparently there is something military on both sides of the gorge, but seemingly nothing really important military, if such a thing exists at all. The signs do not say “no trespassing”, but merely suggest that the hiker should be careful when wandering into the line of fire.

Maisingerschlucht (2)

In contrast, the rules that the authoritarian children from the Anti-Montessori School have put up are much stricter: No peeing, no pooping, no littering.

Maisingerschlucht (3)

12

“Are you a pilgrim?”

“An Atheist Pilgrim.”

13

Just outside of Söcking, the retreating glaciers have left behind a hill with a single tree. A wonderful vantage point with a view of the Alps. A young couple is sitting on the only bench. The girl is reading a book to her boyfriend.

I don’t want to disturb them and sit down in the meadow far away (the snakes won’t climb that high, I hope), so that unfortunately, I can’t find out which work connects the youthful happiness. It’s a pity, because this recognition would probably mean more to the author than dull sales figures or a fabricated spot on the bestseller list.

Söcking (1)

Before me are the Alps, behind me the equally high cumulonimbus clouds. The place is beautiful, but probably too exposed to sleep.

Söcking (2)

Söcking (3)

14

That is why I move on to my nightly quarters with Yasmin and Basti, who are an absolutely positive surprise. There is homemade pizza, beer from the bottle and a lot of stories. Funnily enough, Yasmin was also worried all day about who would arrive in the evening: “Every time an unwashed hippie in a cloud of marijuana fog walked by the office, I thought: Oh dear, hopefully that’s not Andreas!”

The two of them immediately make me feel at home. They are the kind of people who stop for every hitchhiker, who are happy about these spontaneous encounters, who want to do Couchsurfing in Iran soon and who can get by for weeks with a small backpack. I am feeling a bit uncool with my large backpack, full of books.

Outside, the thunderstorm flashes, and I’m glad to have found a place to stay for the night. The exposed spot under the single tree would provide a meteorological and electrostatic spectacle, but it would also soak me completely wet, maybe even ignite me.

For tomorrow night, near Lake Ammer, I have already found another host through Couchsurfing, but the nights thereafter are still without accommodation. That might become uncomfortable. In view of the thundering storm, I should probably worry about that, but I am so exhausted that I fall asleep immediately after going to bed.

Links:

Posted in Germany, History, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The Iron Curtain and Freedom of Travel

When I was in Transnistria, I had to go to the immigration office to obtain a tourism permit that would allow me to stay in the country beyond the 48-hour visa that I had picked up at the train station. The father of the hostel owner offered to accompany me to translate, should it become necessary.

He was very kind and interesting, and while we were waiting for my application to be processed, he was talking about his life as a radio technician in the USSR.

He told me that he used to travel a lot when he was young.

I asked him, very naively, if he had been traveling more since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“But that’s not possible anymore,” he sighed. “Back in Soviet times, oh yes, I was traveling to Lithuania, to Estonia, to Armenia, to the Caspian Sea, to Georgia, to the Baltic Sea, to Kyrgyzstan, to Samarkand. But now, I need a visa for each of these countries, there are new borders everywhere.”

I was humbled. For me, the geo-politcal changes of 1989-1991 had opened up another world. But for many others, it had made their world smaller. With a Transnistrian passport, he can’t venture very far.

It had also made their world more brutal, in many places. And the war in Transnistria was not even a very bad one, as wars go.

Yugoslavia is another example, where people could not only travel freely in what are now seven different countries, but because of the non-aligned status, it was easy to travel almost anywhere in the world with the Yugoslav passport. There, the wars were very bad, though.

That day in Tiraspol, I began to understand people’s nostalgia for a country that in the West was only associated with oppression. Ever since, I have been more open to listen to people’s stories who are so different from mine. There are many reasons beyond the ones mentioned here why people long back to Soviet or Yugoslav times. Yes, these were dictatorships, but it seems that many people remember the time as cozier, more cultured, more egalitarian, safer. If you are interested in understanding this sentiment, there is a wonderful book by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, Second-Hand Time, a book which certainly does not shy away from portraying the horrors of the Soviet system. But nothing is just black or white, as these heart-wrenching stories reveal.

By the way, I got the Transnistrian permit for staying in the country after waiting a mere 10 minutes. And it came free of charge.

Links:

Posted in Cold War, History, Transnistria, Travel | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Why I never get hired

I received this e-mail:

Hello Andreas:

The company I work for soon announces entry into the German market via a webshop.

We need to make sure we have control over the legal aspects of selling to German customers. Therefore, we need a freelancer to complete our impressum, data management description as well as trading terms. Furthermore, the person must go through various pages such as customer service, check-out flow, disclaimer in relation to German law.

Uff, that’s a lot of work.

The requirement for the freelancer is that the person is a native German educated lawyer and has experience with e-commerce laws.

Check.

We need your skills as soon as possible so that we can reach our tight deadline.

Oh no, that’s a red flag right there!

stressed-office-staff-working-deadline-rush_74855-4579

I replied:

I am not quite sure what you mean with “tight deadline”.

Surely, it’s up to you to decide when you launch your webshop in Germany.

I can’t imagine that you just had this idea yesterday or that it only appeared to you today that Germany might have different laws than other countries.

And even if that was the case, let’s take things step by step. Requirements and readiness will dictate the timeline, not the other way round. Let’s not rush ourselves with arbitrary dates.

I usually don’t hear again from potential clients. People really think that work is urgent, just because they haven’t taken the time to pause and reflect about all the other beautiful things they could do instead.

Links:

Anyway, I think my time is put to better use if I write stories for you. Because many lawyers can give legal advice, but not many can write the way I write. Sure, I won’t earn a lot, but many things are more important than that. And maybe you want to keep this project alive by supporting this blog.

Posted in Law, Time | Tagged | 9 Comments

Hitchhiking against the Skeptics

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


“I don’t think anyone will stop. COVID-19 is still around, you know?”

“That will never work, and you’ll end up having to take the train.”

“There are no hitchhikers anymore.”

“Is that even legal?”

Thus sounded the skeptical voices as I announced my plan to hitchhike from Ammerthal to Vienna, a distance of more than 500 km.

Ammerthal is a small village in Bavaria, far away from all arteries of domestic and international traffic. Those who built their houses here and are preparing an extensive weekend breakfast at this very moment are happy about the tranquility. Those, like me, who like to venture into the wide world are suffering from its remoteness. How am I supposed to get to Timbuktu, Tbilisi or Tiraspol if the roads here lead to places like Götzendorf or Weiherzant?

Karte Trampen Ammerthal-Wien

And today is even more tranquil than normal because it’s Saturday. Saturday morning at 8:00. And not just any Saturday, but Assumption Day. In the morning, I read a very blathering newspaper interview with a pastor who tried to interpret Mary’s assumption as “the victory of individualization over all attempts of de-individualization”.

The people who fail to stop on the road to Ursensollen, where a highway promises the connection to the outside world, seem to have taken the idea of individualization too seriously. Or they misunderstood it completely. For more than half an hour, I am standing in the village where evil fate has dropped me, and nobody stops. Some drivers wave at me. Some act as if they are so blind that their driving licence should be revoked.

“What will you do if nobody stops?” hitchhikers are sometimes asked. The standard answer is, “Eventually, someone will stop.” I would manage to get away from Ammerthal too, I’m sure. But the highway is only 6 km away, so I might as well walk. Of course, I always stick my thumb out for any passing car, but high Christian holidays don’t seem to encourage the helpfulness of the predominantly Catholic rural population.

Even in the rain, nobody helps. As I walk through a village called Kotzheim (literally: Puke Home), I feel exactly like that. The travel day doesn’t start too well.

Andreas Moser hitchhiking B299

On the B299, the cars going towards Kastl or Neumarkt are not stopping either. Only the Polish drivers slow down and point apologetically to the back seats filled with children and travel bags. I wave back, filled with gratitude. Nobody has any obligation to stop for me, I am aware of that. But some communication from human being to human being, that goes a long way. Much better than all those drivers who stubbornly look straight ahead as if they don’t see me. These are the kind of people who probably walk past homeless people or run over cats.

A young woman drives by without stopping. That I understand perfectly. I do know women who hitchhike alone, but one shouldn’t minimize the additional dangers they face. This is especially true in Amberg and the surrounding area, where the murder of hitchhiker Sophia Lösche in 2018 is still on people’s minds.

But then, something unusual happens: the young woman who just passed by has turned around and came back. “Excuse me, but I was so surprised that I couldn’t pull to a stop immediately.” I actually concede that a lot of drivers might be nice, but just don’t react quickly enough. Another reason for lower speed limits.

And since hitchhiking is not so common anymore, drivers simply don’t think about the possibility of a guy with a backpack suddenly standing by the side of the road. “You are the first hitchhiker I’ve ever seen,” the young woman says, still surprised.

She is an editor with the local television station Oberpfalz TV and is driving to Neumarkt, where I hope to get on the Autobahn A3. She sees the positive side of the Corona virus, because the journalists can finally set their own topics instead of chasing after appointments and invitations and events. More reports, more background stories, fewer press conferences. “But now that everything is loosening up again, I realize that we are already falling back into the old routines. Sadly.” This seems to happen to a lot of people, both professionally and personally. I almost wish for a really long and severe pandemic, for a chance of a real rethink. Away from consumption, away from speed, towards a more conscious life.

In Neumarkt, she takes me to the gas station in Berg, which is located just before the access ramp to the Autobahn, one of Germany’s (in)famous interstate highways without a speed limit. It was a detour for her, but a great help for me. After the depressing morning, I am now in good spirits for the rest of the day. One successful, friendly ride changes everything. Even the rain has stopped. And if one day you will watch a report about hitchhiking on Oberpfalz-TV, you know who sparked the idea.

I unpack the sign, which I have prepared so professionally and artistically, and position myself by the exit of the gas station. (The Ö is not some shocked face, but the first letter of Österreich, the German name of Austria.) It’s quite busy here, at least compared to the dirt roads trying, unsuccessfully, to connect my village with civilization.

Drivers from Romania and Turkey stop to tell me that, unfortunately, they are going in the wrong direction. A family from Poland stops to tell me that, unfortunately, their car is full. It is jam-packed indeed. An attractive lady from the UK stops and is visibly disappointed that I am heading south-east instead of north-west. (Next plan after the Corona crisis: hitchhiking without a fixed destination.)

Soon, a young couple stops. The passenger rolls down the window: “You want to go to Austria? So do we. Jump on in!”

What a coincidence! First, nobody stops for one and a half hours, and then someone comes along who is also going on holiday to our friendly neighboring country and can take me all the way. Jule and Chrissi are going to a place whose name I have already forgotten, but I don’t know where it is anyway. Shockingly, I know less about Austrian than about Australian geography. No idea where places like Innerschmirn or Sellrain are.

“And where do you have to go?”

“To Linz.” Well, actually to Vienna, but a Dutch couple from Linz, readers of my blog, wrote me and invited me to spend a few days with them. There are some really good and selfless people in this world.

“Where is that?”

“Roughly between Passau and Vienna. I think we’ll go past there. Once we’re in Austria, we can check the map.”

Luckily, Jule doesn’t take geography so lightly and checks the map immediately. To the horror of all those who have so far dismissed Austria as a small and compact country, Austria is – even after the Treaty of Saint Germain – still quite large and confusing. Linz is not at all in the direction of the Brenner Pass where they have to go. Instead, the motorways that make respective sense for us already split in Regensburg, so they drop me off at a service station in Parsberg.

Jule und Chrissi

Uff, that was close. I almost went as wrong as someone who wants to go to Bayreuth and ends up in Beirut.

In Parsberg there is less traffic, but the atmosphere is more relaxed. People are slowly waking up. A motorcyclist stops and asks if I have a helmet with me. Unfortunately not. A truck driver takes a photo of me for the Truckers’ Instagraph. The police drive by without arresting me. (Just as being male reduces the risk of being murdered or raped while hitchhiking, white skin color reduces the risk of being shot by the police. It doesn’t hurt to make oneself aware of such privileges).

Two Indian ladies with a car full of children stop and offer to take me as far as Regensburg. Because I am worried about getting stranded in the city, instead hoping for a ride at least as far as Passau, I decline gratefully.

The moment they drive off, I already regret it. This was the mistake of the day.

Foregoing the ride in an Indian car just because I was hoping for something more convenient, that should not have happened! Especially not to someone writing about the journey. I am still angry with myself that I have prevented you from engaging in this cultural contact.

And I’ll remain angry for quite a while. Because from that moment on, as if to punish me, nobody stops. Will Parsberg turn out to be a similar provincial black hole as Ammerthal, from which there is no way out? I have been on the road for three hours already, yet I am only in the next county.

It takes a full 20 minutes until a young man stops, who insists on addressing me as Sir, although I tell him that there is really no need to do so. He will leave the Autobahn before Regensburg, but he can drop me off at a parking place along the motorway. There is no gas station, so there is not so much going on here, but you can talk to people while they are performing stretching exercises or when they come back from the restroom.

But as you know, I’m very shy. So I stand next to the parking cars with my sign, not daring to disturb anyone. I am looking at the license plates, one is from Passau. That’s exactly on the way and would take me right to the border. The driver sees me, gets out and calls over to me:

“Where do you want to go?”

“Passau would be perfect.”

“Well, then get on in.”

That’s how easy it is.

The elderly woman is on her way back from Metz in Lorraine, where her French husband lives. Sometimes the couple lives there, sometimes in Passau, sometimes they allow each other some time off, and once a year they go on holiday to Italy, always in the same hotel, for 20 years already. “Not living together all the time makes marriage bearable,” she passes on an important piece of advice to me and you.

It’s noon as we are going past Regensburg, about 70 km from the place I left at 8 o’clock. “You haven’t really gotten very far today,” the woman points out without mercy. But now we are making good progress, always along the Danube, which is an ambivalent river for the lady from Passau. There, the three rivers Danube, Inn and Ilz meet, which regularly leads to flooding.

“2013 was the worst,” she recounts almost with pride. “The ground floor was completely flooded, and on the top floor the water was six feet high. The books were stuck together like concrete, absolutely unusable. I could only salvage the records. I dried them, and they still work.”

hochwasser-luftbild-binder

The car radio is playing “Life is live”. She turns up the volume and taps the beat with her hands on the steering wheel.

“Who had the idea to build a city in a place like this?” I wonder, but she doesn’t know it either. It seems as defiant a project as Manaus on the Amazon. A wooden cross from Altötting is dangling from the rear-view mirror. Perhaps all unfounded hope rests on that.

She drops me off at the Danube Valley rest area, which thankfully is not flooded at the moment. Here I have to change my sign, turning the unspecific “Ö” into the more specific “LINZ”. Just as I am about to start this work, a man in tattered clothes and with a big shopping bag filled with a few empty bottles walks up to me. He asks if I could give him one euro.

Linz

“Look at me, I’m all tattered,” he says, as if I could have missed that. He is working in the parking lot all day, but has only collected six bottles so far. (Or maybe he has already deposited part of the loot in his car.)

I open the wallet, which only holds 2-euro coins, which seems a bit much for a donation.

“That’s alright. Two euros are the customary amount,” he says cleverly and as confidently as if somewhere on a tree nearby, a statute with his fees was affixed.

“I don’t have too much myself,” I say. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be hitchhiking.”

“You certainly have more than me,” he replies, rightfully angry about a clean-shaven hack pretending to be penniless in order to collect material for a story, while he is collecting bottles for survival.

“You are probably right,” I confess, considering whether I should reward him with two euros for the absolutely appropriate rebuke.

But his thoughts are already elsewhere: “Where do you need to go?”

“To Linz.”

“There, the young guy in the red car, he is going to Linz. I am sure he will give you a ride.”

I walk up to the young man in the red car, an old Opel Corsa or something like that.

“Are you going to Linz?”

“Yes.”

“Could you take me with you?”

“Yes, of course.”

I still want to thank the helpful bottle collector, but he has already moved on and is speaking to new customers.

“Why doesn’t he get a job?” many people will think when they see a man in a yellow T-shirt with plenty of holes, reaching deep into garbage cans. But his recycling, conversation and referral services are more valuable than the so-called work of marketing key account executive assistants or of fingernail designers.

The young man, on the other hand, who travels from Bonn to visit his girlfriend somewhere in Austria, no longer has to worry about anyone underestimating the importance of his work since the explosion in the port of Beirut. He studied chemistry and is now doing research and a doctorate on detection methods for dangerous substances in shipping containers.

It’s nice to encounter a scientist who is as skeptical as I am about technical solutions to humanity’s problems, from energy to climate change.

Twice, some fat SUV almost rams the little red car from behind, as if they suspect that we are mocking the naivety of those who believe that an electric engine or a hypocritical hybrid would change the energy inefficiency of using a 2-tonne vehicle to carry a person weighing 80 kg.

By the way, people with a small car without air conditioning, where the windows steam up during the rain because there is a leak somewhere, take hitchhikers much more willingly than people in SUVs, who regard everything outside their tin tank as a hostile world to be rolled over like the trenches on the Somme or the Marne.

I am almost sad to arrive at the rest stop in Ansfelden, south of Linz, because it was such an interesting conversation, covering everything from recycling to right-wing extremism, from greenhouse gases to genocide. I completely forgot to ask for the name of the young man who is making our seaports safer and our roads more pleasant.

In Ansfelden, I only have to wait 5 minutes until two students take me the remaining 10 km to the center of Linz. They are going to the apartment of their holidaying grandmother to water the plants. It’s a pity that not more people know that there are professionals like me to do this tough work, so that the grandchildren could prepare for their school-leaving exams instead.

Louise and Luuk, the two Dutch people who invited me to Linz, had also offered to pick me up on the way. They were a bit skeptical about hitchhiking too. But they are not skeptical at all about hospitality. Although they only knew a few of my articles, they invite me to their house, spend the weekend with me, provide me with a private room with a separate bathroom, and even cook from morning to night.

And they actually would have enough to do, because they too are authors and translators. Luuk drew and wrote, or rather extracted from original documents of soldiers, the graphic novel “Elke Dag Sterven” about World War One. Louise translated it into German. They both write and edit the pages www.HoeVrouwenDenken.nl and www.HoeMannenDenken.nl. On top of that, the whole house is full of self-made art.

“Isn’t that weird, just showing up at at the house of strangers?” I’m sometimes asked. Theoretically it could be, but after a few minutes, the inexplicable feeling of having known each other forever sets in. Some hosts have a talent for this. And so we sit in the garden for long evenings, talking, smoking, and in my case getting a heavy headache from too much chili liquor. I also put on a few kilos, because Louise not only cooks well and plentiful, but also insists on me taking the leftovers for the remainder of the journey.

Only by pointing to the upcoming visit to Mauthausen, where I probably won’t have much appetite, can I avoid packing lasagna, five large bars of chocolate, sandwiches and some freshly roasted souvlaki skewers, complete with fries and salad.

But they insist on driving me to Mauthausen, which, to be honest, I’m quite grateful for, because hitchhiking out of big cities (among which Linz might be counted if we are inclined to be generous) is always the hardest part.

Although this blog does not usually shy away from putting completely unrelated things into a construed context, there is a limit. The visit of the concentration camp memorial in Mauthausen shall therefore remain reserved for a separate, serious article. (If you are interested, please note it in the comments section, so that I know if there is even any interest in serious topics). Here, it must suffice that Louise’s and Luuk’s assessment that one could easily spend half a day at the memorial was absolutely correct. The whole morning was suitably grey and gloomy, and as always at such places, at the same time shocking and illuminating. No matter how much one believes to know, there is still a lot to learn.

The sun only rears its head as I make my way back down to the small town of Mauthausen in the afternoon, but then as strong as if it wants to make up for the missed morning with all its strength. The cyclists overtaking me see my VIENNA sign on the backpack and are wishing me “Good luck!”

Wien

The Danube flows right past Mauthausen. As hitchhiking doesn’t seem to pose a challenge anymore, I am thinking of hitching a nautical ride instead. A barge is just turning around the bend. Unfortunately, it is going in the wrong direction, upstream. After that there is a lull in river traffic.

Well, then I’ll have to hitch by the road again. The thermometer outside the pharmacy shows 36º Celsius. The ice cream parlor, where the thermometer would make more sense, is closed. I’m melting as fast as the polar caps, except that you won’t find any mineral resources underneath me.

After about 5 minutes, an older man with glasses and a white short-sleeved shirt, type retired teacher, stops and says: “Oh, young man, here you’ll be standing forever.” He may be right, because Mauthausen is north of the Danube, but the A1 to Vienna runs south of the Danube. “Well, I’d better take you to the highway.”

We talk about where I come from and where I’m going. The gentleman knows Amberg, has been there a few times and praises the big church on the market square. By the way, he didn’t have to go to the motorway at all, and is taking the 40 km detour just for me.

“But now, let’s be honest,” he demands. “You sound like you’ve been to university.” Apparently he is shocked that academics also hitchhike, and I confess that I studied law and philosophy and am currently studying history.

“Law, philosophy and history!” he exclaims with appreciation. “You could be a government minister, you know.”

“I have been waiting for the call all the time,” I pretend, although the phone is actually switched off and in the backpack, because I am not too keen on office and committee work.

“If you are studying history, you will be interested to know where we are. Here, the Romans made a big tactical blunder. In Albing, there was a Roman legion camp and a large fort, from around 170 AD. The Limes, the border of the Roman Empire, ran along the Danube. as you know. And north of it were lurking the Germanic tribes, or the Marcomanni, to be exact. But in the Danube, there is an island at this point, which the Marcomanni secretly penetrated and from there they could attack the Roman camp. A big mistake! The Romans should have secured this island as well.”

His sympathies are clearly on the side of the Italian invaders.

“The Romans finally retreated and built a new site called Lauriacum. Besides Carnuntum, this was the most important Roman settlement in what is now Austria. From that, the city of Enns emerged.”

Limes Österreich

“This is how Austria and Bavaria were Christianized,” he continues, without allowing me time for more than an acknowledging “oh”. “Christianity came north from Rome, then via Lauriacum to Passau, which was once the largest diocese in the Holy Roman Empire. Even Upper Austria was part of Passau back then.”

When I ask him if he also studied history, he explains: “Not really studied, but I used to travel a lot with my brother. All over Europe,” adding dreamingly: “Oh, there are so many beautiful and interesting places!” And during his travels he always read up on local history.

This describes my modus operandi quite well, except that I don’t have a memory as good as the gentleman scholar’s and quickly forget the details. As I am not taking notes while in someone’s car, the lecture here is also only reproduced in fragments, like the archaeological excavation going on in Enns right now.

“Up ahead you see a beautiful Romanesque church. This is Rems.” He pronounces it like Reims in France.

He takes me directly to the on-ramp of the A1, which leads to Vienna. In Austria, road planning is still oriented towards people, not just cars, and a shoulder provides space for hitchhikers and stopping drivers.

Auffahrt A1

I only wait about 5 minutes until a couple from Slovakia stops. Marko is a mechanical engineer, he studied in Slovakia and in Germany and was just in Austria for a job interview. For him, it was no question that he would stop for me: “When I studied in Magdeburg, I often hitchhiked there from Slovakia. It usually took me two days.” And, with the precision of an engineer: “In one day, you can make between 350 and 600 km.”

His wife is a lawyer. “But I haven’t worked for the last 6 years because we lived in China.” As I have experienced myself, to my great sorrow, a law degree loses its usefulness immediately upon crossing the border.

The engineer is very enthusiastic about China, about the organization, about the infrastructure. The father of two also believes that the one-child policy makes sense for economic and ecological reasons.

The lawyer, on the other hand, criticizes the lack of freedom and regrets that she could not talk openly with anyone about politics or human rights in China.

He: “But look how efficiently China responded to the Corona virus.”

She: “And they efficiently control any coverage of it.”

He: “Our politicians always talk about human rights and so forth, but first they should build roads and hospitals and airports like in China.” (I personally haven’t noticed any lack of roads on the way.)

She: “Surely, one can build things without imprisoning the Uyghurs.”

He: “That doesn’t bother anyone in China.”

“Yes, that’s how the Chinese are,” the wife says sadly and in an effort to reach some consensus. “The most important thing for them is that the family is doing well and that they earn enough money. They’re not interested in politics at all.”

“But this isn’t specifically Chinese,” I dare to interfere in the argument. “I’ve just been to Mauthausen, and that’s the way Germans and Austrians were thinking 80 years ago. And I’m afraid most would do it again.”

Maybe the problem are human beings, not the Chinese or the Germans.

Thus, I brought the mood in the article and in the car to the freezing point, and because I don’t have any chocolate to hand out, I suggest a radical change of topic: “Marko, did you already know German before you went to study in Magdeburg?”

“No,” he laughs and recounts the story of how he acquired his foreign languages.

“I didn’t know English or German. We were in high school when Czechoslovakia was dissolved and socialism ended. Until then we had learned Russian as a foreign language. After the summer holidays, the Russian teachers were suddenly our English teachers. They had got themselves a book somewhere, maybe a tape, and were now supposed to teach us something they couldn’t speak themselves. They were always just one or two lessons ahead of us in the book.”

“I learned zero English in school, but I knew I would need it. So after high school, I flew to the USA with a classmate where we worked at McDonalds. That’s how we wanted to learn English.”

Oh yes, the wild 1990s!

“We worked the grill, hundreds of hamburgers a day, maybe thousands. And then my friend got promoted to the counter. Oh, I was so jealous, because now he could talk to the customers and improve his English a lot faster.”

“But you know what happened? It didn’t help him at all, because at the cash register you always say the same five sentences: ‘How are you?’ ‘Eat here or take away?’ and so on. You don’t learn anything. But I was at the grill and I didn’t have a Slovakian colleague anymore. So I had to talk to everybody in English, to the Negros, to the Brazilians, to the Mexicans. And that’s why my English is so good now.” He definitely has confidence, although he uses terms which strike me as somewhat outdated.

“And your German?” I ask, because he speaks it really well.

“It was the same with German. The European Union offered scholarships, and I was assigned to Magdeburg. So I took a German course during the summer holidays, but I just couldn’t get my head around the grammar. Really, I understood nothing. I thought to myself, well, in Germany you can probably get by with English, after all, it’s a western country. But Magdeburg had only recently become western. They didn’t know English yet, and I had never really learned Russian. So I went to all the German courses on offer: at the Technical University, at Otto von Guericke University, at the Adult Education Center, I listened to everything three times, and because I read and heard the language everywhere, it slowly caught on.” Now he’s being modest, because apparently his German was good enough for a position at the Fraunhofer Institute within half a year.

As the funny Slovaks drop me off at Perchtoldsdorf station in Vienna, I can hardly believe it myself, but: It worked! I did it!

All the doubters and skeptics who said that you can’t hitchhike during the pandemic, that it won’t work anyway, that nobody hitchhikes anymore or that it’s forbidden, they have to pick something else to doubt or to skepticize. Or simply try it out themselves.

When I told Louise in Linz about hitchhiking, she said: “This sounds like a suitable therapy for people who are afraid. People who read too many scare stories about crime, who believe that humans are inherently evil, and who believe that the world is a dangerous place, they should join you for a day.” An excellent idea!

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Bombs, Explosions and my Time in Beirut

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


This week’s explosion in the port of Beirut not only woke those who were just taking an afternoon nap, but also memories of my visit to that city. It was a short visit, barely enough for a first impression, and it was many years ago. Back then, I didn’t take any photographs, nor did I take any notes. This was in the bleak old times before I discovered writing, when I was still laboring and toiling as an attorney. Yet, let me try to piece together some fragments from memory.

The year was 2005, and Beirut, or indeed all of Lebanon, had just been rocked by another massive explosion, killing Rafiq Hariri, the Prime Minister. Actually, there were bombs going off all the time, which made it the perfect destination for me. I am not the type of guy for a boring beach holiday.

Raketenangriff

This was in Israel, but maybe the missile came from Lebanon.

I still have the Lonely Planet guide for Lebanon and Syria, 2nd edition from 2004, and I am browsing it now. I should have marked the spot of my abode on the map. But I haven’t, which suggests that I was very confident to find the way back. I was walking a lot, because I found the buses too complicated. Anyway, walking around aimlessly is the best way to explore a city.

Only upon arrival had I taken a taxi from the airport. It was already dark, and either there were no more buses that evening or one of the taxi drivers was too quick to snatch me off the street. I remember lots of potholes, some of which may have been remnants of war and tears rather than of wear and tear, and some tanks on the side of the road.

I’ve had this feeling many times, and I love it: Arriving in a country for the first time, knowing nobody, not speaking the language, not knowing where I will end up, nor what will happen. And smoldering smoke, tanks in the streets, gunfire lighting up the night sky. There is a little bit of tension, sure, maybe even worry, but excitement and curiosity are winning big time. I was probably smiling.

“Where do you want to go, Sir?”

“I am looking for a cheap accommodation, maybe something like 20 $ per night.” It was the cut-off mark between cheap and not cheap in the Lonely Planet guide, at least at the time. And because everything would be new, I wasn’t really worried about where in town I would stay.

I remember that we were just going straight the whole time, which showed that he was a fair taxi driver, and then he turned right and there we were. He took me up to the second or third floor of an apartment building, rang the bell and explained what I wanted.

“For how many nights?” an elderly gentleman asked.

“Three nights,” I said spontaneously. I only had one week altogether, and I had booked the return flight from Damascus, so I still needed to go to Syria. I recommend booking your flights like that, because it gives you a very rough outline of your trip. But leave everything in between free to be filled with what lies on the way.

It must have already been after 11 pm, because the owner of the hostel showed me straight to bed, for which he only charged 6 $ per night. It was a room shared with 5 other people. Now, I don’t mind the sound of sirens and snipers, but I can’t sleep when someone is snoring. The men all looked like construction workers of some sort, and they were snoring like bears. I slept really badly, if at all, except for the last hours in the morning, because they had to leave early and go repair some building that had been blown up. Once I got up, I realized that I was basically in an apartment that had been turned into a hostel. This was AirBnB before computers. It worked fine without them tech guys fiddling with it, thank you.

The next day, I walked around aimlessly. I stumbled across the place where Rafiq Hariri had been assassinated, and saw what a huge blast it must have been.

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All over town, buildings displayed scars from the Lebanese Civil War, which as a child I had seen so much about on the evening news, without ever understanding anything. Except that it was dangerous and complicated, which had probably fostered my fascination for Beirut.

libanon-beirut

In fact, walking along the Corniche, it felt like in any other Mediterranean city. People were strolling, the waves were crashing, men were selling roasted nuts, children were screaming with joy, young people were looking as attractive as possible. “Paris of the East” the city had been called before the civil war. Looking at the buildings, I couldn’t disagree more. But looking at the people, I could see it.

I hadn’t had any time to prepare for the trip. At the airport in Istanbul, waiting at the gate for Beirut, I was the only white guy among Middle Easterners. One of them asked, concerned: “Are you sure you want to go to Beirut?” Well, I had no back-up plan. A young woman, very attractive, working for the UN in Vienna, and going home for Christmas gave me lots of ideas and things to see. I wrote them down, but she just recommended nightclubs, discotheques and other party places. When she got up, one of the men sitting around us said: “It seems to me that the young lady misinterpreted the intention behind your trip to Beirut,” and he smiled mischievously. I later threw away the notes, although they included her name and phone number. Anyway, I had no phone.

This lack of preparation meant that I probably missed a lot of beautiful places. But one which I didn’t miss was the campus of the American University in Beirut. With it’s own section of the beach, it felt like UC San Diego. Come to think of it, maybe I should apply there for an exchange semester. I mean Beirut, not San Diego. In the USA, people are too crazy for me, all of them carrying guns.

aubcontactimage

I also remember walking down the Green Line, which had been a demarcation line for much of the civil war from 1975 to 1990. Now, it was just another street. There was nothing dangerous about it, although people said that far in the south, Hezbollah was living. Anyway, I was using the one of my passports without stamps from Israel, so I wasn’t worried. How would I notice when I was in Hezbollah territory, I asked. “More guys with guns,” one person said. “You will see that they pick up the trash more regularly,” someone else joked, and I understood why people voted for a party that was regarded as a terrorist organization elsewhere.

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It’s not green anymore, because peace is bad for the environment.

Whenever I went into a shop, people wished me “Merry Christmas”, and I had a hard time reconciling that with the lack of snow, with the warm temperature, and with all the signs in Arabic. Many people who haven’t been to Middle East think of it as a mono-religious Muslim place, but it isn’t. There were plenty of churches, and on Christmas Eve, they had the doors open, so I could hear the hymns and songs as I walked by. Each church had at least one tank with soldiers in front of it.

Because I wasn’t writing back then, I did a lot of things differently from how I would do them now. Instead of going to church, I went to the cinema and watched “Lord of War”, a film about an arms dealer. It wasn’t a particularly good movie, but I found it fitting for where I was.

Naturally, whenever I met people, they asked where I was from and what I was doing. When I said, always obliged to the truth, that I was a lawyer from Germany, their eyes widened, they became even more polite, and once, upon hearing that information, a lady in a falafel store said: “For you, it’s for free. I wish you all the best!”

It was only on the second or third day, as I was reading the local newspaper Daily Star, that I realized why people treated me with such unwarranted deference. You remember that the Lebanese Prime Minister had been assassinated earlier that year? The Lebanese investigation didn’t go anywhere, and thus the UN appointed a special investigator. That person, whose investigation was ongoing at the time, was Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor. He was held in the highest regard in Lebanon, and people put a lot of hope into the international investigation. Apparently, when they met a German lawyer in Beirut, they automatically assumed that I was on his team.

But people were generally extremely friendly. After the first day, as I got back to the apartment, the son of the owner asked me how everything was. I said, half-jokingly, that I should sleep during the day and go out at night because of the snoring men in my room.

“Oh, I am so sorry!”, he apologized for what was none of his fault. “Let me speak to my father, maybe we can give you a private room.”

That was good news, and I told him that I would of course pay more for that.

He spoke to his father briefly, and informed me: “We actually have a private room for you for the next two nights. It would be 20 $ per night, though. Is that acceptable?”

It was very acceptable.

And when I was shown the room, I realized that it was the father’s bedroom and that he would be sleeping in the living room, just so that I could have a good rest. I felt terrible and wanted to offer that I could sleep in the living room, but there were more people sleeping there already, and I might not have gotten any sleep again.

The apartment was close to Charles Helou bus station, a mere 300 meters from the port which was completely destroyed this week. Of course I am wondering what became of the people with whom I stayed. If they survived, they are probably in the streets, cleaning up the city, stepping in where the government is failing.

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By the way, whenever you think of Lebanon, don’t forget that this is a country ravaged by wars, civil wars, currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages, yet it has taken in the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita. If that little country with a heap of problems can take in one refugee for every four of its own citizens, then we can all do more to help, too.

But nobody saw this coming in 2005. Quite the contrary, on the last day, I went to Charles Helou bus station, looking for a bus to Syria. “Don’t pay more than 10 $,” my host had instructed me, worried that I might get overcharged. As I got to the bus station, it seemed eerily empty and windy, though.

“All buses have been cancelled, because there is a snowstorm in the mountains between Lebanon and Syria.” That was bad, because I had to catch the flight from Damascus in three days. But the adventurous tale of whether and how I managed to get to Syria is better left for another time…

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The most stupid plan of all times

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser faszinierenden Geschichte.


Germans love plans. The bigger the plan, the better. World domination, an airport in Berlin which will never be opened, a spaceport in Congo, and so on. Between all the half-baked Schlieffen plans, it’s hard to establish a ranking because each one is dumber than the other. But I hereby nominate a surprisingly unknown candidate for the most stupid plan ever. On the other hand, I have full confidence in the anecdotal knowledge of my readers and I remain curious about your own nominations.

But first, let’s visit the Qattara Depression.

Never heard of it?

Good, because then you will leave this blog smarter than you came.

Well, Qattara is a depression in the Libyan Desert, which, confusingly, is not in Libya but in Egypt. But desert is desert, and at the arbitrary border demarcation conference of 1884/85, well-meaning Europeans couldn’t get dragged into the depths of every detail, could they? Especially when the detail is very deep, like the Qattara Depression, 133 metres below sea level to be exact.

Qattara depression map

That’s quite a dent. The only reason this major manufacturing defect of our planet went unnoticed was its location far away from the next quality control center in Cairo. Otherwise, it really couldn’t have been overlooked. It’s 120 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide. If you stumble into it while walking in the desert, you won’t crawl out that easily. At 18,000 km², the depression is almost as large as the land mass of New Jersey, which would provide ample opportunity for deep and dark comparisons of deep and dark holes, but those would not only be below sea level, but also below the level of this blog.

Qattara depression cliff

So, what do you do with something like that?

“Ignore it,” said the Stoic.

“Offer guided camel tours,” said the Egyptian minister of tourism.

“Build a secret chemical weapons factory,” said the neighboring Libyan dictator.

“Dig a canal from the Mediterranean Sea and lead water into the depression, which, because of the gradient, will power several turbines that generate electricity. It will also create an artificial lake [the size of Lake Ontario], whose evaporation will rain down and make the desert green. Tobacco and banana plantations can be created here, where Africans can work for us colonial masters, which, after all, should be better than drowning in the Mediterranean,” said Professor Albrecht Penck, a German geographer, geologist and expert on hollows and basins, who stopped off in Egypt in 1916 on his way back from Australia. Apparently, the long ship voyage had made him crave for activity.

At that time, however, the First World War was raging and every shovel and pickax was needed to dig trenches and to smash enemies’ heads in close combat. Peaceful canal digging on the sandy beach of the Mediterranean Sea was considered to be of secondary importance.

And then, in 1919, Germany lost all access to Africa under the Treaty of Versailles. Game over, one might think. But Professor Penck did not give up. He developed the theory of ethnic and cultural soil, of the need for a larger living space and colonial possessions for Germany. The Germans liked that. They voted for the Nazis and sent soldiers and tanks into the Egyptian desert. All for the Lake Qattara project.

Qattara depression German tank

 

Incidentally, the terrible habit of German men wearing short trousers until old age, which you may have observed on holidays, dates from that time.

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But there are other blogs to discuss fashion. You have come here because you finally want to know why an enormous tank battle was fought at El-Alamein in 1942, in the middle of the desert.

Qattara depression battle map EN

As you can see, El-Alamein (on the far right of the map) is located exactly where the channel to the Qattara Depression would link to the sea.

Just a coincidence? Ain’t nobody gonna believe that.

And anyway: Why were there several British divisions near El-Alamein, although they should have been preparing for the landing in Normandy?

At the time, Cairo was a nest of spies, and thus the British geologist, geographer and secret agent John Ball, who had good contacts with the German rock scene thanks to Erasmus semesters in Freiburg and Zurich, learned of the German plan to flood the basin. Initially, he offered his cooperation, perhaps out of genuine interest, maybe with perfidious motives from the outset. At any rate, when in 1933 Germany’s reputation began to suffer due to a certain Reich Chancellor, Ball jumped ship and in the autumn of the same year published his “own” proposal for canal construction and energy production.

Qattara depression John Ball

And now, it should be clear why hundreds of thousands of German, Italian, British, South African, French, Greek, Indian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers came together at El-Alamein in 1942. Thanks to the desert-tested Australians, the victory went to the British side, and the Germans retreated to Tunisia. There they founded holiday resorts, which they still regularly invade, reminiscing about world-conquering times.

But, to not let the main thread of this story seep away in the desert sand like blood gushing from a foot blown off by a landmine, what happened to the Qattara Depression and the crazy plan?

History repeats itself, one might think, because Germany did not give up.

Professor Friedrich Bassler, a hydraulic engineer, became the driving force after the Second World War. Because colonialism no longer sounded so great, he spoke of a “hydro-solar depression power plant”, which feigned scientificity. As is well known, West Germany lived under Clausewitz’s motto “economics is the continuation of war by other means”, and so the German Ministry of Economics and Technology supported the plans, explorations and feasibility studies. Egypt probably thought “what a stupid idea”, but let the Germans carry on. Because of the minefields that the same Germans had previously generously laid around El-Alamein, the Egyptians couldn’t use this part of their country anyway. (The idea that Germany and Britain could clear the minefields first seems obvious to us today, but back then, kilowatts were more important than children’s legs.)

The plan was, as I said, to build a canal or a tunnel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Qattara Depression, with turbines powered by water in between.

“And once the basin is full?” you ask.

“The depression will never fill up,” Professor Bassler answers, “because it is so hot in the desert that the water evaporates just as quickly as new water flows in.” A perpetual motion machine, the dream of every scientist.

“But if the basin never fills up, won’t the water seep away faster than it evaporates?”

“We’ve calculated all that, young man. In the first ten years, we let more water flow in until the depression fills to a level of 60 metres below sea level. As a result, the surface of the lake slowly rises and with it the evaporation. When we have reached this desired level, we keep the water cycle in balance. That way, we not only produce energy, but we also create an artificial lake for fishing, shipping, etc. New cities and settlements will be built and Africa will become as rich as Europe.”

About 80 scientists and engineers, mainly from Germany, were working on the project.

“But this is salt water”, someone cautiously tosses in, thinking of the few freshwater oases in the basin.

“Salt water is better than no water at all,” answers the water scientist, because it’s not about his own oases. Besides, he really believed in progress, as people did in the 1960s and 1970s.

The only problem was the construction of the canal. It was not even the length of 55 to 80 km. After all, the Suez Canal was just around the corner, measuring 164 km. No, the problem was a mountain range between the Mediterranean and the Qattara Depression. Drilling a tunnel instead of digging a canal would take decades. Besides, it was too expensive.

But Professor Bassler had an idea: “I’ve already worked it all out, and it’s quite simple. We will drill 213 boreholes along the route that the watercourse is to take. In each of these boreholes, we detonate an atomic bomb with an explosive force of 1.5 megatons.”

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This is the equivalent to one hundred times the Hiroshima bomb. In each of the 213 holes, respectively. Near a tectonic trench breach. Funded by the German government.

“Wouldn’t that lead to atomic contamination of the water, Professor? No one would be able to live there, neither fish nor man.”

“Oh, we will throw iodine tablets into the water.”

And then the project died a silent death. No one knows whether it was the Camp David peace agreement, the meltdown on Three Mile Island, or the murder of Anwar as-Sadat. Perhaps the West German government simply thought that the money could be better used to annex East Germany.

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Posted in Egypt, Germany, History, Military, Technology, World War II | 7 Comments

But what about the Comet?

Zur deutschen Originalfassung.


No, I am not talking about Neowise, the current celestial body taking advantage of the boredom caused by the corona virus pandemic, seeking attention with marketing superlatives like “extra bright”, “supersize” and “only available for a short time”, which, for a few days, is making earthlings look up from their telephones into the sky, albeit only briefly and not without first using that very telephone for determining or – or rather to have determined for them – the optimal time and the optimal location for the heavenly rendezvous, during which they are more eager to take pictures than to enjoy the moment, and after which they are most keen on posting, sharing and liking on their phone again. Because for most people today, a comet counts for nothing if they do not capture it photographically and if nobody praises them for the photos that have been posted on the internet thirteen thousand times already, most of them in better quality.

I want to tell you of a different comet and take you back to the time when cameras were luxury and telephones were tied up at home. A time when we were involved in nature with all our senses, without distraction, simply observing, enjoying, marveling in disbelief, when we were devoutly absorbed in the uniqueness and transience of such moments.

The year was 1986, and the fly-by of Halley’s comet was imminent. Compared to Neowise, it says “Hello, Earth” much more often, but at that time, life expectancy was so meager (numerically and qualitatively), that even the 75-year interval of the speeding star was sold as a unique opportunity. I was 10 years old at the time and couldn’t handle such enormous time spans anyway. Or I sucked at math.

In any case, at that time, according to concrete calculations by Copernicus and his cosmonaut colleagues, it so happened that at some point, the nightly and thus visible overflight of Captain Halley over my small village in Bavaria had been calculated, prophesied and announced.

The times must have been uneventful, because for months the comet had been the big thing in the media. We bought science magazines, didn’t understand anything and had no money left for MAD Magazine. On television, which at the time had only three channels that weren’t even working around the clock, physicists in turtlenecks explained the planets and comets using pitifully wobbly papier-mâché models. I didn’t understand anything, but I remember that in the end some powder in a bowl was always ignited and exploded. The show was called “Piff Paff Poff” or something. The Postal Service ingratiated itself with the population for the upcoming change of ZIP codes by issuing a special stamp for Halley’s comet.

mission_giotto_28timbre_rfa29

By the way, for 80 pfennigs you could send a letter from Bavaria to Bremen, Buxtehude or Berlin (West), but not to Berlin (East), because that was intercepted by the Stasi. We didn’t know that, and so we always thought that relatives in the GDR were too wretched to write back. Just one of many misunderstandings between West and East.

For months, people who, unlike us 10-year-olds, had too much money had been acquiring binoculars and telescopes, extending roof hatches and training, practicing and exercising for the day of the century in such an elaborate and serious way as usually only displayed by NATO once a year, when Canadian soldiers occupied the primary school in Ammerthal and thus for one week cancelled PE lessons, which were never more than the dreaded dodge ball anyway, if I remember correctly. (Thank you, Canada!)

But I digress like the wobbly tail of a comet wandering through space for millions of years without the help of GPS. Back to the eventful day in spring 1986, which I can no longer pinpoint exactly, but which I date in March or April, first because it was no longer too cold to spend hours outside in the night, second for an incisive and epochal event, which, for dramaturgical reasons, I will only allow to make an appearance later in this story, hoping that I shall not forget about it as I have forgotten other things, which, however, form the core of this story and therefore must enjoy absolute priority.

I know for a fact, though, that it was a Friday. Because Friday night was chess club, without any competition from any Friday night alternatives. (By now, we don’t even have chess anymore, as if the comet had not only passed our village, but had struck here and wiped out all social life). One morning in the fourth grade (at that time, there was no school in the afternoon, because parents were neither afraid of children being alone in the afternoon nor of them not knowing three foreign languages and two musical instruments fluently), two gentlemen in suits came into class and tried to inspire us for the Soviet communist board game, which, following Cold War terminology, they consistently called the royal game. They resonated most with those who did not care about football, the only local sports alternative. Back then, I could not have explained it as I can now, but I always had an instinctive aversion to fascist cults of physical prowess.

Finally, the enthusiasts for the black and white board game mentioned that chess is somehow good for intelligence. As a 10-year-old, I thought I was incredibly intelligent, perhaps one of the few likable character traits which have remained constant throughout my life. Thus, together with other brave young men, I volunteered for the chess front. I can’t remember if girls were explicitly excluded or if their participation simply didn’t occur.

It seemed to be nothing more than choosing between shin guards and the chessboard, but after a few weeks, we chess students were already using terms like gambit, en passant and Zugzwang, while the footballers shouted “hey, pass the ball, you wanker”. At the time I didn’t think that far ahead, and I would be surprised if the adults did, but now it seems either amazing or shocking with which precision the students’ decision between chess and football marked the dividing line between those who went on to high school, university and the big wide world and those who remained in the local school and in the village, many for their whole life.

“What does any of this have to do with the comet?” the astronomically curious readers are demanding to know, and rightly so. So, let me get my ellipsis together: One Friday evening, I walked home with a class and chess mate from the chess club, where we had been prepared for the rook, king or tiger diploma. Actually, we weren’t walking straight home, but like land surveyors hungry for more kilometres to put on the travel expense account, we skillfully took the route in the vague direction of our respective homes, allowing us to walk together as long as possible. Because we still wanted to talk. Chess might have been intelligent, but it was very serious. One of the chairmen of the chess club was also chairman of the correctional facility. There was no room for jokes. After an hour and a half, enriched with lots of sugar-rich Coca Cola, we had a lot of catching up to do.

And that Friday night in the spring of 1986 was a special night. For months, people had been waiting for the comet, preparing telescopes, beer and potato chips and cleaning windows. But it was exactly that evening that Halley’s comet had promised an appearance in our region, spread reliably by the local press. Or maybe the comet could be seen all week, but on that Friday evening,  holes in the ozone and cloud layers were as wide open as mankind’s astonished mouths.

In any case, we remained where our paths would otherwise have parted, and did not part, but took turns sitting on some telephone-line distribution box that only had room for one, while the other paced back and forth. Like everyone else, we were waiting for the comet. Unlike everyone else, however, we did not have a watch, as young people traditionally received them at Confirmation, a level to which we had not yet advanced. But then, even a watch wouldn’t have done us much good, for we had forgotten (or never known) at what time the comet would pass by.

I am sure we were speaking about the comet, sounding as important as possible and without any trace of self-doubt.

“Hey man, we’re so small in the universe, it messes with your brain to imagine it.”

“And this thing is so far away, even if you go full speed in your dad’s car, the comet is always faster.”

“And it is so hot, if you fire a nuclear missile at it, it will melt on approach. It’s invulnerable.”

My esteemed colleague was able to come up with an ad hoc thesis on any topic and present it so credibly that I believed everything. I only noticed it years later in high school, when I had studied and he hadn’t, but he was called to the blackboard. He could present complete nonsense with such conviction that the overwhelmed economics teacher finally gave him a good-natured C.

Halley’s comet could not be seen, and so we jumped from one topic to the next. From comets to space travel. In January, the Challenger astronauts, also on the way to Halley’s comet, had burst into flames. From space travel to movies like Top Gun, Karate Kid and Crocodile Dundee. From movies to poisonous mushrooms, because we didn’t need logical transitions. Then we discussed which secondary school in Amberg was the best and whether Latin or French was easier or more useful. We didn’t think much further in our lives, because it was the carefree childhood where you could stay outside for hours at night without calling anyone. Nobody worried anyway. If one of us had only come home the next morning and explained that he had stayed overnight at the friend’s house, our parents would have said: “That’s what we thought. But next time, please call and let us know.”

And there was actually much more crime in those days. Oh yes, we probably also talked about terrorists, murderers, bank robbers and hijackers, because their WANTED posters were everywhere and we had memorized the bearded faces to collect the reward of 50.000 Deutschmarks, which meant potato chips for life.

Unmeasured time passed over these far-reaching conversations. We looked up into the sky less and less and almost forgot about the unique spectacle. We didn’t even know if the comet would pass in the north or in the south. And if we had known, we did not know where in our village north and south were. Who takes a compass to the chess club?

“I think we’ve talked so long, we missed it.”

“I don’t know what time it is, but I’m freezing, man.”

“And I have to pee.”

“When will the comet come back?”

“In 75 years.”

We were both too lazy to calculate the year, also because this period seemed so unthinkably far away. At that time, no one grew that old, only the Japanese, of whom we knew none, except for the one guy in the movie, who remains on an island in the Pacific for decades after World War II, preparing for the invasion. But:

“If we’re still alive then, we’ll meet here again. But next time, let’s be more careful not to miss it.”

“Deal.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

A few weeks later, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl exploded and childhood was over.

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Posted in Germany, Life, Technology, Time | Tagged , , | 10 Comments