Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reminiscence roadtrip

You know how it is: you spend your childhood in a town somewhere, you grow up and move away, and then when you come back to visit seventy years later, everything looks different. You wouldn't mind so much if someone had had the decency to ask or at least notify you before making the changes--before building the new roads and new houses, before replacing the obsolete train depot with a more modern one, before widening the quay and paving the dirt paths and opening the new eateries and expanding the schools and all that. If you're lucky, some of the old institutions are still around, like the Ox Restaurant where your dad used to hang out--but times have clearly changed, for now the kitchen closes for the afternoon and sorry, you'll have to go to the waterfront to find a bite to eat. Oh dear.

I know how this is, and I've only been away from my home town for 23 years. Almost everything that has been done in Urbana, Illinois, since I left has been an improvement (the prairie grass trails through Meadowbrook Park, the statue gardens on and off campus, the state-of-the-art university buildings, the cleaned up Boneyard Creek), and many of my favorite old things remain (the classy tree-filled parks, the dust-covered plaster 3-D topology models in Altgeld Hall, the experimental cows with the windows in their stomachs). But every time I go back, something else has changed, some old restaurant has closed, some store has replaced another, and it's kind of weird and kind of disorienting.

We spent August 19, the second day of our reminiscence roadtrip, visiting several more places* where Helen had spent her youth, culminating in Ueberlingen.

With all the change Ueberlingen has seen since 1944, it is a wonder that we were able to find the Admiral's house. Helen directed us straight to it, past all the newer buildings she had never before set eyes on. "There should be some train tracks alley here...some stone steps..."--and suddenly we were standing right in front of it. Admiral and Mutter Fischer had moved from the stately house next door to the small clapboard house after hard times forced them to downsize. Their son Peter was Helen's earliest childhood playmate--later her sweetheart, her fiance, her husband. It was in the small Fischer house that a young, widowed, and pregnant Helen lived with her in-laws after Peter's death during WWII.

We opened the gate into the wildflower-filled garden and knocked on the door. No answer. We called up to the open window. No answer. We poked around to the side of the house and knocked again. A woman opened the door and looked quizzically at us four strangers. After Stefan introduced Helen, the woman generously invited us in and gave us a tour.

"You'll see we've changed a few things," she said. "Look, here's where we moved the kitchen."
--"It used to be in the basement," said Helen.
We went upstairs.
"This is my room," the owner said.
--"Mutter Fischer's room," said Helen.
"And here's where my daughter sleeps," the owner said.
--"Lilo's room; she's 97 now and lives in Hamburg," said Helen.
"There was a son too, wasn't there? A soldier in North Africa and Italy," the owner said.
--"My husband," said Helen.

After visiting the Fischer house, we set off to find the house Helen's father had built when they lived in Ueberlingen. "Most of these are new," Helen said of the buildings en route; "maybe the house isn't there anymore." But it was, and it looked quite grand: a massive American foursquare for the American Stoll. No one answered our knocks. We took a photo of Helen standing by the front door more than seven decades after her family had moved east to Bavaria.

Walking back down the hill on the stone steps behind the Fischer house, Stefan received some sad news on his cell phone: 97-year-old Lilo had passed away in her sleep the night before. "We were meant to come here," Helen said; "this was a gift from Lilo."

*First stop: Meersburg, a beautiful historic town on the Bodensee (Lake Konstanz), densely packed with scenic views--old old castles and old new castles, wattle-and-daub houses, medieval walls, creaky water mills, turrets and towers--all piled one atop the other. Despite all the buildings that have stood there for centuries, change nonetheless comes to towns that build their economies around well-preserved Altstaedte. Second stop: the baroque church in Birnau, in front of which Helen spent many an hour flirting with Peter.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


After visiting the Burgruine Roetteln, we headed eastward along the German/Swiss border, skirting the southern edge of the Black Forest and crossing back and forth over the Rhine. (We started by heading in circles for a while, looking for a gas station. Through the magic that is the tri-national agglomeration of Basel, everyone in every rustic small-town sleeper 'burb owns a car, but none of the rustic small-town sleeper 'burbs have gas stations.)

Eventually, we made our way to the tiny town Ofteringen, despite Helen's don't-put-yourself-out protestations ("only if it isn't out of the way. We shouldn't go if we have to go out of the way"). Helen used to visit Ofteringen with her father every summer when she was a little girl, and she had fond memories of the sawmill and restaurant her relatives owned there. It's a small enough town that it took only about three minutes for us to find the mill. Alas, the restaurant was closed for summer vacation, but after we loitered for a while, we noticed an elderly man crossing the sawmill yard. "Go talk to him," we nudged, so we tromped over and Helen politely asked whether he had perhaps heard of her father, Otto Stoll. Ayuh, sure he remembered Otto Stoll; long time ago, though. Yep.

A road sign near the mill pointed to Erzingen, 4 kilometers away. Helen's father was buried there, in his brother's family plot, after he died too young in 1942. "I don't need to go," said Helen, shuffling her feet. "It's out of the way. The relatives there were nasty. We shouldn't go; it's out of the way." "We're going," Stefan and I said.

We were already going out of our way, of course: if you want to get from Freiburg to Steinebach, driving along the Swiss border is hardly a direct route. But in Helen's defense, distances do expand in odd ways in Germany. Stefan's family used to drive from Steinebach to the neighboring village of Auing to buy farm-fresh eggs. That the farm was an easy 10-minute walk from their house was beside the point: Auing was a whole village away, so they drove.

We did well to visit Erzingen, despite the vast 4-kilometer detour. We located the cemetery above town. Although we read every single grave marker, we didn't find the stone we sought. The closest we found was a column memorializing bones that had been moved from the old cemetery in 1964. Yet we had clearly found Stoll Central. Every other marker belonged to one Stoll or another. And we met two helpful, living Stolls: a friendly middle-aged woman whose father was also an Otto Stoll, and an elderly silver-haired Frau Stoll who, after some thought, wondered if Helen's father might have been "the American Stoll." (Otto had spent several years as an immigrant in New York before returning to Germany and begetting Helen.) Frau Stoll said "the American Stoll" in a way that suggested the relatives considered him a curiosity, if not a black sheep.

Having become comfortable with detours, we made several more the next day. I'll write about them in my next post.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Burg Roetteln

On August 18, Stefan, Elias, Helen, and I departed Freiburg for Steinebach. The drive would normally take only about five hours, but we spread it out over two days and two countries.

We began by heading south to Loerrach, because I was determined to satisfy my romanticist ruins itch after our triple-whammy failure in Elsass. Nestled on a hill overlooking Loerrach is the formidable Burg Roetteln, third largest ruined fortress in all of Baden. Like pretty much every other ruin in the region, Roetteln dates to the 12th century or so C.E., after which it was happily occupied, renovated, taken over, conquered, reclaimed, expanded, yadda yadda, over the subsequent four or five hundred years. Impressively, it outlasted many of its peers, having the honor of not being permanently trashed until the late 17th century, when, under the reign of Louis XIV the Sun King, French troops sacked it during the Franco-Dutch war.

Because not everyone in our party shared Elias's and my penchant for scrambling through and around ancient crumbled stone walls, we only explored the upper third of the ruins. The lower portion, alas, will have to wait for another visit. Suffice it to say, what we saw was right swell.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Elsass, part II

One of the very fine things about the German language is that it produces tidy verbs like uebernachten (literally, to overnight) that sound so much less clunky than in English. In Elsass, we overnighted (see?) in a small hotel in the pretty little village Andlau. (Yes, it's redundant to say "pretty" when you're talking about little villages in Elsass.)

At breakfast, Elias and I tried the hot chocolate, which in France seems to be made by taking one Lindt dark chocolate bar and one Lindt milk chocolate bar, melting them together, and putting them in a cup. Even for hardcore chocoholics, it is a formidable beverage.

After breakfast, we took a stroll through town, and I discovered it's next to impossible to accurately capture, in a single photograph, the charm of densely packed Fachwerkhaueser on narrow streets; so I gave up trying to photograph whole alleyways and streets and focused on windows instead.

Near the middle of Andlau is an abbey that was founded by spurned-wife/future-saint Richarde in 880 A.D. Most of the Romanesque church dates from the 12th century or later, although the oldest crypts are from the 11th century. Note the lack of floor-to-ceiling paintings (although if you look at the bottom right corner of the photograph to the right, you can see the faint remnants of a former wall decoration).

From Andlau, we drove to Haut Koenigsbourg. Rather than visiting the Château--beautifully restored by Wilhelm II in the late 19th century--we gawked at the miles and miles of tourists and then continued on to the pretty little village Bergheim for lunch.

Afterward, we attempted to chase more ruins. Imagine: three crumbling Châteaux--St. Ulrich, Girsberg, and Haut Ribeaupierre--on three outcroppings atop one small mountain! We parked at the trail head outside Ribeauvillé and after hiking a while, we learned that French trail signs are about as useful and accurate as German ones. Remember this, remember this, remember this, and bring a good map. Alas--it's painful to say--we never made it to any of the ruins.

After our disappointment, we bought a case of wine in Zellenberg, then turned east across the Rhine to Freiburg.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How to eat a Semmel at breakfast

The photographs in the previous post are somewhat misleading, because they show Semmel on plates. The proper way to eat a Semmel is as follows:

1. Slice the Semmel in half lengthwise. DO NOT RIP THE SEMMEL.
2. DO NOT PUT BOTH SEMMEL SLICES ON YOUR PLATE AT ONE TIME. This is not an arbitrary rule. Your plate is for butter and jam. There is not enough room for two Semmel slices. Plus, if you put both Semmel slices on your plate at once, you will get unsightly crumbs all over the plate.
3. Put the Semmel halves next to your plate.
4. Because the Semmel has already been sliced, if you so desire, you may now rip off a small piece from one half. (Remember, DO NOT put the remaining ripped Semmel half on your plate. It belongs NEXT TO your plate.)
5. Spread butter and/or jam onto the Semmel piece you plan to eat. During this process, it is permissible for the Semmel piece to come into contact with the plate.
6. Eat the Semmel piece.
7. Return to Step 4. Continue until all of the Semmel has been consumed.

Note that it is also perfectly appropriate to slice a Semmel in half, place one half next to your plate, and return the other half to the community Semmel bowl so that others may enjoy it. There are so many different varieties of Semmel (plain, poppy seed, plain, sesame seed, plain, Kaiser, and plain), that it's nice to share.

Behold the Semmel

Behold the Semmel in some of its infinite variety:

The Semmel* is the most revered of German breakfast foods. Made with refined white flour, it is what we oafish Americans would call a Kaiser roll and might ignorantly buy in the deli section at Kroger's without batting an eye. Not so in Germany. The locally-owned corner bakery might be good for Kuchen, but if you want the lightest, airiest, fluffiest, crust-crispest Semmel, you paradoxically must go to the chain-store bakery halfway up the block; and if you are a Semmel conoisseur (i.e. German), you can actually taste the difference. Unlike hearty rye Pfisterbrot ("the best bread we Bavarians have," says Helen, and which Stefan once gushed over by exclaiming, "and can you believe this stuff lasts for weeks without ever tasting stale?"), a Semmel's shelf life is limited to a few hours, on principle if nothing else. Reheated day-old Semmel do not a proper breakfast make: they must be purchased fresh, daily, if you're going to do breakfast right ("Immer frisch, immer frisch"--always fresh--Helen instructs). You could choose to start your day with something "heavy," say a whole-grain roll with actual nutritive content, but the Semmel-eating majority will shake their heads and pity your woeful miseducation.

*Northern Germans call Semmel Broetchen (diminutive breadlets), which Bavarians think is Just Wrong.

Elsass, part I

On Thursday and Friday, we made a westward excursion across the Rhine to Elsass (Alsace). Our tour began in...

...Gengenbach (in Germany, opposite Strasbourg). The town boasts a well-preserved medieval Altstadt of Fachwerkhaueser (wattle-and-daub houses) with an oddly out of place baroque Rathaus (city hall). Gengenbach's Stadtkirche St. Marien (city church of St. Mary) dates to the 12th century, but like most centuries-old churches around here, it has been renovated and revised and Baroquified and de-Baroquified assorted times. The church interior currently sports a late-19th-century take on a Romanesque floor-to-ceiling paint job (see here for the real thing). In sum, Gengenbach presents a loving ode to anachronisms.

We proceeded onward to Strasbourg. More Fachwerkhaueser, more charming narrow streets, lovely canals and a beautiful river, one picturesque scene after another--and then we turned a corner and went weak in the knees when our random meanderings brought us face to face with...

...Strasbourg's whomping huge, amazingly ornate cathedral. It filled our view and took my breath away. I've never been so overwhelmed by a building.

More strolling, followed by the requisite 4pm coffee and cake, and we were off again, now into the Vogesen--Elsass's answer to the Black Forest. And lo, we saw ruins, so of course we had to pause for a little ruins chasing. First stop: the Château de Spesbourg. According to a sign, the Château was built in 1250 by the Baron Alexandre de Dicka de Stahleck. What a great name. In the 14th century, the Château was taken over by the knights of the nearby village Andlau. In the 16th century, the good citizens of Barr (another nearby village) burned down the castle to avenge the dishonneur of a young Barroisie. (NB: don't abuse the hired help.)

From Spesbourg, we could see the next ruins over--the Château d'Andlau--and I figured I'd trot on over while Stefan, Elias, and Helen hiked back to the car. It was a good trot, but in vain: the ruins were closed for renovations. I guess even ruins need a little TLC every few centuries.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Das Navi

After we left Tübingen, we amused ourselves by turning on das Navi--our rental car's GPS navigation system--and then ignoring its directions. To its credit, it didn't raise its voice at all, although when we turned off the highway into Donaueschingen to see the Donau Quelle (the spring that is the source of the 2840km-long Danube river), I expected its default soothing feminine lilt to say something like "ich sagte, links abbiegen, du doofer Idiot" ("I said turn left, you doofus").

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


On Tuesday, we drove two hours to Stuttgart to pick up Stefan's mom, Helen, whose tenant had driven her west from Steinebach to meet us. On the way back to Freiburg, we decided to stop off in Tübingen, location of the eighth oldest continuously operating university in Germany. The university was founded in 1477, some 380 years after Oxford, some 13,000 years after the area was likely first settled, and the very same year (surely not coincidentally) that Tübingen expelled all of its Jews (allowed back in 1850).

Unlike Freiburg, most of Tübingen survived WWII intact. The Altstadt thus includes many original wattle-and-daub houses, the oldest of which date to the 14th century; parts of the Schloss above the Altstadt are yet three centuries older. We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon meander.