Friday, August 31, 2001
One family's Rhine trip unravels some American preconceptions
Traveling outside the United States always makes me feel especially American. I suddenly appreciate simple things that I usually take for granted: smooth coffee, mint toothpaste, and free rest rooms. I'm much more aware of cultural differences. And international sports events make me positively nationalistic.
Blessed with in-laws who live in Brussels, two children that are of school age, and the powerful dollar, my husband and I took our family to Europe this past July. My father-in-law suggested a weeklong cruise on the Rhine in Germany. I found myself intrigued, despite some personal reservations, specifically about the food, the language, and the people.
Excellent food and drink are prerequisites to a great vacation. I love international cuisine: the hotter the "vindulu," the spicier the "grapao," and the fresher the "carpaccio" the better. Knockwurst, brockwurst, and sauerkraut are fine for one day in October, but I wondered if I could take more than that. The idea of bland German food for a week just didn't appeal to me. Furthermore, I'm not a beer drinker, and don't care for white wine.
Then, there's the language. I don't speak German. I feel uncomfortable when I can't understand what people around me are saying. It's difficult to get a sense of a place without being able to communicate with its people or read the local newspaper.
Finally, I have trouble accepting what Germans did during WWII. Hitler and the Nazis almost succeeded in their Final Solution of annihilating the Jewish population with the slaughter of six million people. My mom was a child in Croatia during WWII, and her town suffered under Nazi occupation. In my own childhood, I visited the beautiful Adriatic island she used to call home. I listened to terrible tales about the WWII atrocities. The wartime generation regarded German tourists as peaceful invaders. You couldn't help contrasting the powerful BMWs and Deutchmarks with the weak Yugo and Dinars.
In the last decade, many Americans joined in celebrations over the reunification of Germany. Nonetheless, I have friends who simply refuse to visit Germany ever. The daughter of an immigrant, I am sensitive to the danger of racial prejudice. I very consciously decided to go to Germany despite personal misgivings, and vowed to try to keep an open mind.
Strolling the pretty streets of Strasbourg
The Rhine cruise into Germany actually began with a three-day stay in the border city of Strasbourg, France. Situated at a crossroads of water and overland routes, the city is positioned as a portal between France and Germany. The Austro-Hungarian princess Maria Antonia, subsequently Marie Antoinette, first set foot here. After the fall of Napoleon, the German Empire annexed the city. It wasn't until 1918, after World War I, that the city was restored to France. Today, the city combines French and German cultural influences.
Strasbourg is a lovely city with sparkling canals and lush gardens. The new buildings of the financial center are among the most architecturally advanced in Europe. The clothing shops display the latest fashions. The impressive Notre Dame cathedral forms the physical, spiritual, and emotional center of the city. Half of a 60-page guidebook about Strasbourg covers the gothic cathedral. Inhabitants even give directions using Notre Dame as a starting point.
Statues and monuments stud the busy streets. One of the most heart-wrenching was commissioned after WWII. It depicts a mother with the slain bodies of her two sons. Both men have died in the war, one fighting with the Axis and the other with the Allies. It's a powerful and sobering image.
Of all the cities we would visit on the trip up the Rhine, ironically we found we ate the most German food in Strasbourg. Either lunch or dinner on the tour featured the typical Alsace stew of ham, potatoes, cabbage and carrots. The menu would change radically once we started the cruise.
Choosing the right phrasebook
Despite being named after an Italian impressionist painter, the Modiglianiour ship was a French cruiser. The 170 passengers, with the exception of my family, were all French. My father-in-law speaks French perfectly (even though he was born in Egypt, worked a decade in the Far East, another decade in South America, and holds a Dutch passport). Although he said his son's family on the planned trip was visiting from America, the travel agent assumed we all spoke French as well.
I put aside my German phrasebook, and wished for my French one back home. All on-board announcements were in French. All tours at the three ports where the Modigliani stopped were given by guides fluent in French (meaning they spoke fast and seemed to swallow words as well as syllables). The only guide I could remotely understand turned out to be a German who spoke in the clear and precise tone of a foreigner.
The culinary benefits of a French cruise quickly outweighed the language difficulties. While breakfast was self-service and continental in demeanor, lunch and dinner were elaborate full-service endeavors for which one could order red wine (from France, of course). We started with a first course, consisting of gourmet fare such as a cheese tart, paté, or salad (with more goodies than greens). Second course featured such things as a grilled capon or a roulade with intricate side dishes. Delicious sauces topped almost everything. The meals concluded with spectacular desserts, such as a multi-layer cake with raspberry sauce or a mocha mousse drizzled with chocolate. The concept of "kids' menus" did not exist and prompted our nine-year-old son Alexander to exclaim, "It's great to have grown-up desserts! We usually just have a choice of ice cream"
I felt somewhat vindicated about the language issue at meals. The serving staff consisted of Bulgarians. They did not speak French, English, or any other language except their own. All the passengers struggled to communicate with them.
Marveling at the coastal beauty
The Rhine is comparable to the Mississippi in girth and function. Barges frequent the river and transport materials between the south and the north of the continent. I kept hearing the French word "peniche" and quickly learned it means barge.
After dining (of course), we settled in for the first night on the Modigliani. Our cabins were small, but not uncomfortable. The kids were excited to each have a bunk bed (although both would fall onto the adults in the double-bed below before morning). We set sail at about 1 a.m. with the current behind us. I woke up at 4 a.m. and peered out my cabin window for my first glimpse of Germany. I was startled to see an industrial smokestack, and in my suggestive state went on to dream about concentration camps. In the morning, the scenery had greatly improved. Romantic castles dotted a verdant countryside.
By afternoon we had reached Koblenz, our furthest point north on the trip and first stop. The large city has a serious nature, with plain and utilitarian buildings. I learned (by eavesdropping on an English tour) that most of the city "was destroyed during WWII." The guide's use of the passive voice put the Germans into the role of victims instead of the adversaries. Upon returning to the States, I discovered that my father, drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943, had been posted to Koblenz. Here, he had served in the occupying army and he recalled the resentment of the local populace.
The next day the Modigliani turned southward. What had taken us one day of sailing with the current would now take us three days to return to Strasbourg sailing against the current. We passed the Lorelei, a mighty slate rock between Kaub and St. Goarshausen. A multitude of legends surround the rock and its ghostly echo. The most well-known describes a siren whose unearthly and enchanting beauty bewitches sailors into forgetting the dangerous rapids and reefs along the way.
We next docked at the city of Mainz. First, we toured a wine cellar, where I sampled the white wines politely, but found the crunchy pretzel my favorite German offering. Next we visited the Siegfried Mechanisches Musikkabinett, a museum featuring mechanized musical instruments. In the early twentieth century, before the invention of the phonograph, a music machine would incorporate multiple instruments of the orchestra. One even incorporated a piano, brass, timpani, and four violins. The complex devices were fascinating. We were reminded of Germany's huge contribution to the world of music as we listened to notes from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Leaving Heidelberg with lightened hearts
The next morning we continued our trip down the picturesque Rhine. We stopped for a bus tour to Heidelberg, known for the city's 500-year-old university. Students make up one third of the city's population today, and lend the town a cheerful and young disposition. We visited the city's spectacular castle. At the gate to the fortress we were fortunate to find that a tour in English would take place in 15 minutes. We left the French contingent temporarily. The group scheduled to take the tour was from Malta. They had a translator who understood English. While waiting, we struck up a conversation with our friendly and likable guide Ursula.
We learned that Ursula had been born in East Berlin in 1945. After the war she lived with her mother and four siblings in a British refugee camp in West Germany. That's where she learned English. She poignantly looked at my six-year-old daughter Roxane's long ponytail. She recounted how her older sister also had hair down to her waist but her mother had cut it, as lice were rampant in the camp. Her mother, once a lawyer, had worked in the fields to support them. Ursula never mentioned her father.
Our German guide had clear blue eyes and golden hair. She must have been a beautiful child, but her Aryan features had yielded no privileges. Through no fault of her own, war had interrupted her childhood and destroyed her family. It's important to remember history lest we repeat its mistakes, but it is also important to move beyond it. After hearing her story, I experienced a strange sense of catharsis. I felt the last tinges of prejudice slipping away.
Perhaps the greatest impression Ursula made on me was how an individual could affect one's impressions and attitudes towards an entire country. It's a sobering thought, and reminded me to be on my best behavior as an American in Europe. But you don't have to travel very far to represent your country. It's something to remember the next time a foreigner struggles with English to ask you for directions.
© +YEAR+ The Carlisle Mosquito