The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Euroromance: Day 2: Romancing the Quedlinburg

Today was spent recovering from my hard-core travel day(s). I slept late and woke to the soft glow of the morning sun through my immense bedroom windows. Spurred by a raging desire for coffee, I headed downstairs to the breakfast room where the hotel Zum Markgrafen serves a lovely free breakfast.

In my no German and the serving girl’s little English, I begged to have my food taken up to my room with not one but two (two!) pitchers of coffee. She asked me something intelligible and indicated with a head nod that she’d take the coffee tray up to my room while I followed later with my breakfast selections. Having no idea what she said, I blithely nodded and continued to select my food.

A few minutes later, I went back up to my room. There was no one and more importantly no coffee there. What the hell had happened? What had I agreed to? I stood around for about a minute, unsure if I should go back downstairs and search for the serving girl who had apparently vanished with my coffee or if I should just wait and see. About that time, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Apparently, I had told the girl my room was at the top of the building (4 flights up). She gracefully accepted my apologies and left me to my breakfast.

About the food, so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of foods I’ve encountered here. Hearing that I was about the enter the mayonnaise belt of the culinary world, I’d resigned myself to living off of bread and beer for most of this trip. However, already in Amsterdam, I’d purchased a picnic feast of basil, tomatoes, goat cheese, and bread for the train. And now with this breakfast, I was dining on fresh fruit (kiwi, plum, nectarine, orange, pineapple), cheese and tomatoes (the tomatoes here are amazing. I can’t figure out how they get out of season fruit here that is so good), salami, and bread. So good. So far my only issue with Europe is the lack of readily available flat water in bottles. They love flavored water and sparkling water, but flat water, no way.

After breakfast and shower (have I mentioned that I am in love with this shower?), I walked over to the tower next to my hotel. For 1 euro, you can walk to the top and experience breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding countryside. After depositing my euro in the coin slot, I pushed and pulled on the turnstile to no avail. As I was about to try again with my second euro, I noticed the bike chain around the top of the turnstile. Apparently, the tower was closed today.

Slightly daunted, I headed into the town to find the internet and experience the German walled city. The hotel I found that offered internet had to have been on the cutting edge of computer equipment . . . in the early 90’s. I was graciously shown to a desk where resided what had to be an ancient 386 IBM. After much consternation and searching on my hands and knees around the computer tower, I found the USB port and commenced to access my email. However, if the computer was ancient, it had been upgraded more recently than the accompanying mouse. The emailing session I envisioned taking about 15 minutes stretched to 45 as I again and again moved and jiggled the mouse to get the cursor on a tiny icon—only to have it leap off again. It became a game of cat and mouse (almost literally). The cursor wildly leaping around the screen as I tried to make it go where I wanted it to and then just. stay. put. Adding to the stress was the gentleman behind me waiting his turn to use the computer.

With time pressing, I hurriedly sent out emails, becoming best friends with the backspace key as I tried to type by touch with my QWERTY knowledge on a keyboard set up for the German language. “you’s” became “zou’s” at an appalling rate. But I did learn that “abschicken” means “send” in German internet speak.

Emailing accomplished, I exited into the sunshine to finally begin embracing my vacation.

First on my agenda was to get an understanding of the town itself. Quedlinburg is an ancient city whose walls date back to 950AD. The town was initially Roman, and you can see that in the cobbled streets with high curbs and house design. I was struck by the structural similarity to Hercalaneum in Italy (one of the two towns that was destroyed by Vesuvius that is open to tourists). To sum up Quedlinburg in a word it would have to be texture. While all of similar shape design, the houses are a cacophony of building materials used to fill in the timbers of the frame. Some used raw brick, others stone, still others a plaster fa├žade painted in varying bright colors. Around every corner a surprise in composition and color and texture awaited. Also, none of the walls of the houses were true. Some leaned over the street while others leaned away, giving the viewer a sense of pleasant organic surroundings as if these buildings weren’t built at all but had sprung up overnight like the dark mushrooms found in the Hartz mountains.

Quedlinburg is almost entirely supported by tourism. It is an UNESCO heritage site, and most of the structures within the city walls and around the main castle are protected. However, this city appears to be popular with only German tourists. While there were many out-of-towners here and many services that cater to them, the only English I heard was that spoken by me and by those who answered me.

That said, it is very frustrating to be operating in a language system that I have absolutely no base. Give me a Latin country and I’ll muddle along with the best of them. But when the word for excuse me is “entschuldigung,” how the heck am I to guess that? At least beer (bier) is universal here.

After exploring the tiny downtown, I headed back to the main square that is dominated by the Rathaus or townhall. There, taking advantage of the warm sun, cafes had set out patio furniture and were encouraging guests to partake of their meals and beverages in the golden warmth. I chose one of these cafes and positioned myself in the sun to enjoy a dark German brau and a little people watching.

My next destination was the actual old castle just outside the city walls. This is the oldest structure in the town and is situated very castle-like on top of a hill. Though there was massive construction going on that prevented me from making a thorough tour of the castle, the views from the grounds of Quedlinburg and the surrounding mountains, blue with distance, made the trek well worth it. From my vantage point, I could even see the Brocken, which is the witches' mountain (talk about obsession with witches, this area way has it) and is featured in Goethe’s Faust. I love the old walls of the castle and church, a mix of multicolored mortared stones with natural rock bursting through the walls.

My appetite spurred by the trek to and from the castle, it needed satiation through the most German way possible: kartoffel! So where did I go? Das kartoffel haus of course! Again with dark Deutsch bier, I enjoyed potatoes and oxtail soup and, ummm, potatoes over nasty creamy mushroom sauce. Mushroom sauce aside, the potatoes were, in a word, divine. Good kartoffel needs good local brew to follow. I walked to the whole other side of town to the Ludde Brau microbrewery (Ludda!). The high vaulted ceilings bulstered by curvaceous iron trusses were perfectly complemented by the light from the setting sun coming through the large high windows. While sipping my dark then later a light beer (the brewery only makes two beers: light and dark—a common trend here, I was soon to learn), I played with my newest acquisition: a German cell phone that would enable me to make very expensive calls back to the states to check on my son.

Because while on vacation what you do is eat, I moved from potatoes to brew pub to dining establishment. My goal of finding a place for dinner proved harder to attain than I initially thought. My first choice for dinner was the Ratskeller located in the (you guessed it) cellar of the Rathaus. While the establishment was all that I assumed a cellar restaurant in Germany would be, the musty fried smell drove me in search of another dining venue. The hotel Theophano (of 386 IBM fame) had a restaurant/wine cellar in it. After learning of its new location (aka a site not in the hotel), I gratefully ensconced myself by an alcove that emitted gleaming candlelight from a many-tiered, iron candle stand. As I sipped my flat water, I listen to the live piano music. This restaurant must be the equivalent of fine dining in Quedlinburg. Very sparse space entirely made of whitened brick arches. White table cloths set off against orange chairs and candles flickering on every flat surface and in every alcove. The food wasn’t remarkable. Some things got lost in translation: namely the scallops were actually shrimp. But the live music was fun and it was good to sit in an environment that was very quiet (with the exception of a man waiting for his girlfriend to get off work, I was the only guest) and serene.

At the end of my meal, the piano player came over and asked if I were English or American. When I responded the latter, he eagerly offered in very broken English, “You like 'Old Man River'? I play for you.” I tried to say no that I’d prefer the Beethoven and the Christmas music he’d been playing earlier, but he would have none of it. An American must be graced with campy “American” music, damn it. He then proceeded to play a medley of the cheesiest camp songs ever. From “Old Susanna” to “Old Man River” to “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” (not sure how this got labeled “American”). Embarrassingly, I knew almost all of them. He finished his number with “Auld Lang Syne” (again: American?). I dutifully applauded his efforts at bridging a cultural gap and asked the server for my coat.

Then, as near as I can figure out, the waiting gentleman asked the piano player who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.” The piano player seemed to not know, so I butted in and offered Robert Burns. However, either I misunderstood the question or they just didn’t hear my English. The final exchange went something like this:

Piano man to me: mumbly kartoffel achtung bitte schnell?
I replied: ummm, sorry. Nein Deutsch.
Piano man, shrugging, turning his back to me, and addressing waiting man: mumbly danke haus keller strasse.

My coat had arrived, so I bid them all “guten abend” and returned to my hotel where I packed and got ready for my second train journey on the morrow.

At this time the next day, I would be in Prague!

Pictures from travel day and Quedlinburg:

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