You remember, I hadn’t made it onto the motorway, the sun had set, and I was standing at a barely frequented gas station outside of Ulm with no plan B.
And then, this happened:
“It’s your own fault,” “I’m sorry,” or “not my problem” is what everyone else would think. But the woman, who looks more like a young girl, is seriously concerned and correctly assesses the situation: “You can’t stay here all night, no one will come by here anymore.” She used to hitchhike herself, she knows what she is talking about.
“If I was going home,” she continues, “you could come with me. But I’m on the way to my parents, and if I bring along a stranger, saying he needs a bed for the night, …”
Yes, I had set out to hitchhike all the way. But not just to save money. Not just for the adventure. Rather to see – and to report – that there are good, helpful people everywhere. And I found them. It was stupid coincidences that only ever got me a few kilometers ahead, that made me wait in inappropriate places, but there was no lack of good will on the part of people who had never met me before.
“I really wanted to make it by hitchhiking,” I concede to the young woman, “but honestly, if you could drive me to the train station in Ulm, that would be sweet, too.” I’ll just give up and take the train home.
She agrees to drive the 20 km detour. Only in the warm car do I realize how cold it had already become. That would have been an uncomfortable night, perhaps a lethal one. And I was saved by a young woman who had to move boxes of jam jars in her car to make room for me and my backpack.
Finding the way to the train station in Ulm is not that easy. Ulm is a confusing mess. The city is so miserably planned and executed that the project was once abandoned and relaunched as New Ulm. Now, both are a conglomeration of confusing on-ramps and off-ramps, construction sites and dead ends. Terrible for hitchhiking.
Finally arriving at train the station, it is 9:15 pm. I quickly proceed to the ticket hall.
“Good evening. Is there still a train to Amberg today?”
“To Schwandorf, perhaps?”
“But at least to Nuremberg?”
“Is there a hotel?”
“You can try next door at the Intercity Hotel.”
There, the receptionist says that she does indeed have plenty of free rooms, but only for railway passengers who present a voucher. I ain’t got no voucher for nothing.
Apparently, if your train is delayed, you get a voucher and a room. If there is no train at all, you don’t get one, although a non-existent train is the ultimate form of a delayed train, isn’t it? But the receptionist is not open to such arguments. She has rules, and she follows them.
In a civilized country, she would say: “Just give me 20 euros. You have to be gone by 8 o’clock in the morning, though, when the next shift will show up for work.”
But Ulm is not a civilized city, which is why it was rightfully bombed to rubble in 1944. A treatment which has unfortunately failed to be repeated every five years or so, as it should be.
I wander through the city in search of a homely park, but there is nothing like that here. Only concrete and ugliness, crack dealers and drunks.
There is still light at the Ibis Hotel. Again, I try my luck, and this time I find it: The night porter here does not perform the job because he wasn’t accepted by the revenue service, but because he likes to have guests.
“Do you have a confirmation that you are on a business trip?”
This is necessary, because anti-Covid-19 legislation currently prohibits overnight stays for mere touristic reasons.
“I’m returning from work in Switzerland and got stuck in Ulm because there was no train that would still take me to Amberg tonight.”
“Do you have an employment contract letter or anything like that?”
Not really. Nothing at all of the sort, to be honest. But now is the time for creativity, not honesty, or else face homelessness for a night.
“I write travel stories. For this purpose, I was in Switzerland and at Lake Constance, where I then got stuck in Friedrichshafen longer than planned because of the beautiful weather and therefore …”
The receptionist seems sympathetic, but has no interest in my whole life story. He slips me a piece of paper and a pen and says: “Just write it down briefly, so I can file it.” And, having already seen me begin to write with verve, adds: “One sentence will do.”
Only one sentence? I can do that, especially in German. And thus I write:
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ibis Hotel in Ulm,
my spontaneous and unplanned arrival at your highly esteemed hotel at short notice is due to business reasons in that I am on my way back from Switzerland and Lake Constance, where as a self-employed travel writer I have been researching, observing, photographing and writing for travelogues, which by their very nature can not be presented before the result will have been completed, let alone in the form of a simple, unambiguous and preferably officially stamped document, as other guests probably can,
and the unplanned end of today’s journey, coinciding with the end of the day itself and thus the need for a bed and the admittedly decadent desire for a shower, is the result – without any predictability – of the lack of meaningful onward train travel options from this city, which seems to be only rudimentarily connected to the rest of the republic,
which is particularly negatively striking if one comes, as I just do, from Switzerland, where even small towns with funny names like Pfäffikon, Witzwil or Tinizong have perfect public transport connections that work until midnight, which should once again call into question the German focus on building more and more motorways, which, as I had to experience today, do not fully serve their purpose, at least not to the benefit of all citizens contributing to their upkeep,
which is why, in gracious expectation of your decision, in the hope of being accepted into your accommodation institute and with gratitude for being permitted to present my wish in person, I respectfully remain:
“You really are a writer,” he says as he accepts the paper, and we both smile under the FFP2 masks.
And so, with that brazen assertion, I put myself under obligation to actually write down and publish this story, thus turning a white lie into retrospective truth. I happily announce that I fell asleep without remorse and even with a joyful outlook on this new career.
The next morning, I finally find a beautiful park in Ulm. It’s the Old Cemetery. Between gravestones and monuments, I treat myself to a vagabond’s breakfast baguette.
It promises to become another beautiful day, because everyone is out for a walk already: Dogs with their owners, children with their parents, and nurses with their patients from the nearby Elisa retirement home.
I am torn between the original plan, the adherence to it and the unshakeable faith in human kindness on the one hand, and on the other hand the non-enthusiasm about the prospect of spending this beautiful day once again getting sunburn and nothing else while standing on the entrance to the motorway, just to have to give up at night and to explain my undertaking and my right to accommodation to another representative of the hotel industry in a short sentence like this and to place my fate in his literary-critical hands. Torn between Thomas-Mannian syntax meanderings, which in their seemingly erratic aimlessness resemble my random movements along the highways, which, however, and this is also a fitting metaphor, ultimately always get to the point and the destination, on the one hand, and the concise journalistic style on the other hand.
Either way, writing requires material, and the material lies on the road. Well, the railway can also provide material, but I don’t trust the regional trains from Ulm to Amberg with the same fruitfulness as crossing Canada by train or the Orient Express.
So, with a heavy heart and with the readers’ interest in mind, I decide to try it with my thumb again. About 10 km north of Ulm, there is a different motorway onramp than the one that was my downfall yesterday. I set off on foot on the long way there, but always stick my thumb out when a car comes along. A young man first drives past me, but then turns around to pick me up. He is going all the way to the motorway, great!
During the drive, we talk mainly about traveling to Israel and Jordan, about the pros and cons of salaried versus self-employment, but fortunately also about the destination of my trip.
“Well, then I can take you all the way to Heidenheim.” The town’s name translates as “home of the heathens”, and that’s a nice change after the 50 Holy Marys from yesterday.
Here, too, I get off at the onramp to the motorway. The young man is so worried by the fact that Heidenheim and thus the nearest train station are 6 km away that he gives me his phone number: “Call me if you can’t get away from here. Then I’ll pick you up.”
He needn’t have worried, because one car after another stops here. Beautiful weather and a relaxing Sunday put people in a good mood. The first offers don’t drive far enough. This time, I prefer to be picky over ending up in the Pampas.
Soon, a couple on their way to Erfurt gives me a lift. They rave so much about this year’s Federal Horticultural Show there that I’d love to go all the way to Erfurt and its flowers and palm trees with them.
But according to the plan, I get dropped off at the next motorway service station. It’s one of the big ones, with hundreds of cars from all directions. From now on, traffic and me will move with stereotypical German efficiency and speed.
So I thought.
But the service area looks as it if was the oil crisis of 1973. The only thing that is active here is the sun, as if to prove that petroleum is indeed becoming obsolete.
A few trucks are hanging around, but they are not allowed to drive on Sunday. A few pensioners are picnicking, but they share neither their sandwiches, nor their attention. A few boys are cleaning their cars, but car fetishists never pick up hitchhikers.
Only a young couple asks: “Where do you have to go?”
“To the A6 in the direction of Ansbach, Nuremberg, Amberg.”
“We’re just going to Rothenburg, sorry.”
The two go to the rest stop for coffee, which gives me a few minutes to think. That’s good, because spontaneity needs proper mental prepration. When they come back out, I intercept them:
“You know what? If you give me a lift, I’ll throw my plan out the window. After all, the whole world wants to go to Rothenburg, and here I finally have the chance.” In case one or the other hasn’t heard, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the most beautiful city in Germany.
Heiko and Saskia make room in the car and we talk about archaeology, about the Neumayer Station in Antarctica (one of their colleagues, a doctor, is working there for a year and would prefer not to come back home) and about bombs from World War II, which you can still find in this area when you build a house and dig out the basement.
Rothenburg was also bombed a bit in World War II, if only by chance, because the oil depot in Ebrach was covered in clouds on 31 March 1945, thus declining receipt of the bomb package destined for it. But the bombs had to be dropped somewhere. And in a town where 83% voted for the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, it certainly didn’t affect any innocent folks. Seriously, dear people of Rothenburg: Don’t confuse cause and effect. If Germany did not want to be bombed anymore in March 1945, it should have surrendered earlier.
But now everything looks pretty again, like a city from Grimm’s fairy tales. Just the way the world imagines Germany to be. It won’t surprise you that Germany doesn’t look like this everywhere, but there are a few small towns that do: Dinkelsbühl, Landsberg am Lech, Beilstein an der Mosel, Hornburg, Tecklenburg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, for example.
I am sitting in the relatively quiet castle garden, looking out over the city walls and the Tauber valley, and writing about the descendants of the pilots of the past. They now come with buses instead of bombers, selfie sticks instead of Spitfires and expectations instead of explosives. While I am feasting on my alliterative associations, I am approached by a young man sitting on the castle wall, looking not at all like a tourist, but like a deeply relaxed daydreamer.
“Excuse me, may I ask what you are writing about?”
Of course, and that’s how we start talking. Timo is a Taiwanese Taoist, and I swear I didn’t make that up for the alliteration. Worried about my unhealthy diet (he’s been watching me smoke), he offers me a big apple. Because he eats one himself, I don’t believe in a Snow White poisoning plot, despite the fairy tale backdrop.
We talk about spontaneity, about hitchhiking of course, about the unpleasantness of gainful employment, the dream job of vagabonding, about India, about Paraguay, Far Eastern spiritualities, neuro-linguistic programming, sword fighting, the advantages of merino wool as well as about worldbuilding (which I can’t do at all) and writing in general (I’m trying).
What was bound to happen does happen, and we chat away until we are the last people in the castle park and in the setting sun. A typical city that lives from day-trippers, you can have Rothenburg almost to yourself if you stay for the evening. Only a few locals in undershirts and with beer bottles in their hands dare to come out now. When the photographers are gone, there’s no need to play Disneyland anymore.
To celebrate the spontaneity we have been praising, Timo would actually invite me home. But as long as he doesn’t have his own monastery, he lives with his parents in Schwäbisch Hall, which should actually be added to the above list of picturesque towns.
I won’t be able to get home by hitchhiking today, that’s for sure, so I hurry through the empty old town to the ugliest train station in Germany’s prettiest town. On the two-and-a-half-hour train ride, nobody talks to me, no interesting encounters, nothing. Travel can be so boring if you don’t do it right.
- If you want to move faster, a little planning helps. For example, I could have asked to be dropped off at a better spot in St Gallen. And on the German shore of Lake Constance, I would have been better off hitchhiking to Lindau, where the motorway A96 begins instead of moving along the B30 like a snail. But then, speed is not everything.
- What I spent on bus, ferry, hotel and train together was still less than what a train ride would have cost for the whole route. But of course it would have been smarter to organize accommodation in advance, for example through Couchsurfing.
- The earlier you get going in the morning, the better.
- Towns that are worth a visit: Friedrichshafen, Bad Waldsee and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.