With the meeting yesterday ended early, I was looking for something to kill time. Hopefully something local, and outdoors. I asked my friends from China whether I could give them a ride back to their hotel, as they didn’t have a car. No, that was not necessary. Their landlady was on her way to the meeting place to pick them up already. Then I had the idea to ask her. She’s perfectly local, and, from the brief encounter with her the night before, when she came to the restaurant to pick my friends up, I knew that she spoke English quite well.
Birgit wasn’t really their landlady, as I later found out. The farm/hotel/restaurant, established by her great grandfather, passed on to her brother some fifteen years ago, but she did help out when she could, even though officially she’s not really associated with it. And it was she who answered the phone call from China, when my friends called to ask whether they could rent bikes to ride to meeting. The roads, she told them, were not convenient for bike riding, but she could drive them to the meeting place in the morning, and pick them up in the afternoon, for both days, for free. She could even go pick them up from the local train station. So they took her up on her offer.
When I finally maneuvered my car out of the patch of mud holes on the side of a small road acting as an unofficial overflow parking lot, Birgit and my friends were standing in the middle of the road waiting for me. It turned out she was thinking of showing them the Frankenstein castle, and she offered the extra seat in her car to me. I gladly accepted. Reputed as the castle that inspired the Frankenstein story, I was intrigued.
The castle, named Franken Berg, is very close to where we were. Unlike the Heidelberg castle, this one was built as a military outpost, not a noble residence, she told me. The German words for the two concepts are different, though both became “castle” when translated into English. In German, the former is a Berg, while the later a Schloss. The Franken Berg was built in 1200s or 1300s, she conjectured, and was damaged during WWII. Owned by a private party, there is no entrance fee, except during Halloween time, when they put up a good scare. Family-friendly events are held in the day, when mildly scary scenes are put up for the entertainment of the kids, but the more scary stuff are reserved for the adults, in the night. Ghosts may come out of nowhere to grab you, and once in a while a lucky guest is put in a casket, and people would cheer and celebrate when the lid is closed.
As the Berg is by definition not that extensive, we covered it rather quickly, and had time to spare. Birgit suggested that we go visit a rock formation near her place. For that I’d better drive, following her car. So that’s what I did. We drove on roads that were one lane wide, but shared with vehicles coming the other way, some of them big bad farming equipment with menacing sharp appendages hung about them. The only sensible thing to do, when one of those came our way, was to quickly spot a place where the shoulder of the road looked more friendly, get our cars over as quickly as possible, and wait patiently for it to slowly move over. In the small towns we passed by the situation was hardly any better, where the roads, often designed just barely wide enough for bi-directional traffic, were commonly sprinkled with cars parked on the sides, with one set of their wheels on the sidewalk.
Birgit’s family farm is rather expansive. Its sheep barn is large enough to contain quite comfortably the little hotel I was staying at. There were dozens of sheep and almost as many lambs, mostly a few weeks old, but with one of them with its umbilical cord still hanging under her. All of the sheep were ear-tagged, including the baby lambs, who wore baby-sized tags, red for the girls, and blue for the boys. The lambs would be raised on the farm, until they were large enough to be served as dinner, she said.
The stone formation in Felsenmeer is right behind the farm, on the other side of the hill. She used to walk up this hill nearly daily, when she was young, but this time she drove us up. Legend has it that two giants held grudges, and hurled these boulders, against each other, and one could still hear them brawl if one listened carefully. Felsenmeer stones were discovered and made use of during Roman times. On one piece of stone we could see tool marks, while another piece was an already-finished column, abandoned for some reason. The stone column was meant for Trier, only some three hour’s drive away, plus a few months in ancient times. Many years ago we visited Trier, I told Birgit, and saw quite a few Roman ruins, including the Roman Bridge, and Porta Negra.
We came down the hill on the same steep winding road that we went up, that was one lane wide but allowed two-way traffic, and that was a private road such that you drive on it at your own risk with the government having no part of it, and sat for dinner in their restaurant. At first we sat outside, in what they called the beer-garden. But the temperature was going down fast, and not far from us a big truck came by to spread manure. It dawned on us that the inside was much more attractive.
Birgit couldn’t find a menu in English, and felt obligated to translate the whole menu for us. Poor thing! This menu was ten times more extensive than the one in the hotel I stayed with. I tried to follow her translation to see if I could save a few key words in my memory bank, but came to the conclusion that the leaky nature of this particular memory bank and the low frequency of potential recall made this endeavor quite futile. She ordered the food for us, including an alcohol-free beer for me as I had to drive back to my hotel. But in spite of the insistence of my friends, she would not eat with us. She had to go home in a reasonable hour to eat with her children, before turning in early in order to get up early for her work, which would be from two in the morning to eleven thirty. She has two boys, fifteen and eight years old, and they could prepare dinner while she showered and took off her makeup. The dinner would be simple, sausages plus a green salad. She would not have my friends pay for her meal there as it’s a family business and she normally gets to eat for free. Etc.
How many hours a week does she have to work? Nine and a half, including a 45 minute break. As a single mother she’s got privileges, such as the reduced work hours, and a choice of the time slot to work. Fortunately the older boy could feed the younger one in the morning and send him off on the school bus. And after school the younger one could stay in an after-school care program for a few hours. They spoke English well, partly from her teaching, she said. They were also learning Spanish in school. As for herself, she learned English from school, the very same one that her kids went later, and used English at work. Her work was at the duty-free store in Frankfurt airport, but in Terminal 1, instead of the smaller Terminal 2 I was going to depart from.
She’d been to many international destinations, including New York. But she would really like to go to China. To see the Great Wall, among other things. How far is the Great Wall from Beijing? The great wall is very long, and only some sections are close to Beijing, I said. Yes–isn’t it like so many thousands of kilometers long? She asked. I had no idea. She said proudly that she learned about it in school. I didn’t, but I didn’t have the courage to say it.
There was one small embarrassing moment in the restaurant after we said goodbye to Birgit. I wanted to use the restroom, but that word did not elicit any response. Nor did WC, man’s room or washroom. Feeling that maybe hearing me more closely could help, the two ladies at the counter came up to me, which made me feel quite uncomfortable, due to the nature of the business at hand. After a few dreadfully long seconds that felt like an eternity, I finally came up with the word “toilet”, which I knew was the correct word the moment I thought of it. It is used this way in many languages in the old world, but is not used in the new world in that sense. The place I was looking for was right there, outside a set of double doors, and down a couple of flights of stairs. There was even an elevator, I eventually realized.
Back at my hotel, I found the lady manager cum cook in the restaurant. We smiled at each other, and she told me that she was wearing the white apron, which was good for the kitchen but not the office. This was mostly understood through gestures instead of words. I said that she must now change her hat, which she didn’t understand. After the change of attire, or the removal of the apron, we concluded our business quickly, with her happy that I paid so much, and I happy that I paid so little. She asked if I were to move to the city the next day. No, I would fly away. New York? No, Moscow and Beijing. Putin? She said. No, I knew him but he didn’t know me, I said. But that did not produce any comprehension, apparently. I gave up. Moscow and? Beijing. She was puzzled. China, I said. It still didn’t work. Chine. A young lady in the back of the office turned and said. Ah, Chine. I really should have known. Where is Beijing in China? It’s the capital. That word should be easily understood by Germans–Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, and at least in English, it’s the same word! She gave me a card and a brochure, and wishes I’d stay with them again if I came to this area again. I smiled at her, and thought of Birgit’s family’s hotel. A half hour’s drive, and a world apart. How I missed clear verbal communication! I knew the problem was completely on my side, but now I also knew there was an easy way out, and that’s not learning German.
Back when we were on the rampart of Franken Berg, Birgit pointed out the direction of Frankfurt, somewhere far away behind the trees, the city of Darmstadt, and the haze. From there, many years ago, a young lady came to Beijing to study, and became the first foreigner I got to know by myself. It’s she who taught me that the correct term is Frankfurt am Main, as there is another Frankfurt in Germany, in what was then East Germany. Despite of the two governments, there was but only one Germany. She believed, and therefore I believed, years before it came true again in form. My eyes fogged up. Wherever you are now, 贝尼尼, I hope you are well!
(Written on 3/17/2017)