I, as most men with families do, fear the family vacation. Its loud, costly, and usually leaves me with a long, dreaded, family hangover. For an extra few tablets of antacid this year, we went to Germany.
What kind of idiot decides on Germany for Spring Break? That would be the kind of idiot that lives with a former East German who became a former German, and is now an American, if she changes government one more time Starbucks will give her a Venti Mochalotta on the house.
Germany as a travel destination is a not the usual choice of sun, boating, sand, and frilly boat drinks. This is doing hard time while vacationing. You’re visiting an entire country that’s set up to emulate and run like Ossining 1, for the most part its very cold. 2, there are rules here, man, you better believe they like their rules! As a native New Yorker, I view rules as alternate side of the street parking, meant to be ignored whenever possible and despised whenever unavoidable. My brother in law says I live in a police state, yet, the social norms of Germany require no policing of its citizenry. They only misbehave when its safe, secure, and socially, responsibly accepted…. a “Darwin was right” sticker here or there on a sign post, mass graffiti, done artfully, almost everywhere, and the entire health conscious, cous cous eating, we recycle everything, please be kind and rewind society smokes like an old Pennsylvania Rust Belt Steel Mill chimney.
The former German that lives with me became an American citizen on my birthday, January 11th, 2013. But, much like I never turned my back on my New York roots having moved to Florida in the 90’s, neither has my wife given up on hers. Unlike her, I hate New York. She loves her home country. Not enough to keep her passport, but, certainly enough to visit on the odd decade.
We wrangled our family of five onto two flights Tuesday March 20, one from Miami, which is another country on its own, and then from Dallas / Fort Worth, this flight taking us to Germany. Yes, we went backwards to go forwards, very zen. American flight 70, non stop service to Frankfurt am Main. Its been at this point some 13 years since I’ve flown transatlantic. And, back then my family was smaller, significantly so. Now, with a full grown 6’2 250 pound gorilla as a son, a 14 year old Boca Jap in training (hasn’t gotten her City of Boca issued Benz yet) and the 9 year old artist in residence, Its really no fun to fly the bargain basement airlines I used to fly years ago. Thanks to some very fortuitous points accrual by my old man, and a quick transfer of said points, my whole family went to the front of the line, front of the house, big boy seats up front. And that my friends, is how you travel. There is no statement better made by an international traveler than “I got 4 and a half hours sleep on the flight”. Its fried gold, especially when you have a 2 hour road trip awaiting when get to the destination airport.
I spoke about rules sometime earlier and now is as good as any to further the discussion; When we arrived into Frankfurt and very sleepily moved through EU customs, we on the flight were provided with two very simple options “EU citizens and Non-EU citizens”. Simple, to the point, binary. Except it wasn’t. For some odd reason the guy whose job it is to denote the lines of where everyone should go couldn’t quite make up his mind and somehow made all the lines go to both the Non-EU and the EU customs guy. Awesome, except the German in the front of the line refused to go because, guess what? He wasn’t given permission to move by anyone. The American’s on the flight had 3 seconds of hesitation before skipping him entirely and entering the country. I really hope he moved at some point, its been two weeks..
“Ja, this is Germany”
There is no worse saying from a German, than “Ja, this is Germany.” It means many different things and in no certain order: Go fuck yourself, I can’t help you, I wont help you, and your mother smells of elderberrys”. Its not what you want to hear, ever. The very saying of it means a German has decided to go into bureaucratic mode. Once thats been declared, all bets are off. Sixt Rent a Car, is very fond of this saying. I reserved a BMW X5 with third row seats. I got a Volkswagen Toureg, same car right? One has 7 seats and 400hp, the other has 5 and a diesel. The Seinfeld car reservation scene comes to mind that perhaps they don’t understand the point of reserving a certain car. I did my very best to attempt to explain this to them. “Ja, this is Germany”. Attempt failed.
Bonn, day 1 in country;
My sister in law lives with her husband and two kids in a small suburb of Bonn called Gelsdorf. They have a large church in the city square, its very nice. It’s Idyllic in its smallness. A quaint town for quaint people. As far as I know the inhabitants are very nice. I don’t actually know anything about them, because I never met any. After dropping my wife and my daughters luggage off we headed into Bonn. Bonn is like almost any German city of medium size, industry on the outside, apartment houses getting closer in, and then the city center, usually referred to as the Zentrum or if you’re really in a old place, Altstadt, meaning the Old City. Usually the streets revolve around a central monument, either the local big ass church or the old city hall, known as the Rathaus. Bonn, as it happens, is fragmented a bit and with the former seat of the West German government having been here and a substantial UN presence, the city feels very modern and cosmopolitan. Sure they have sex houses on every third block, but, they’re very clean and well kept sex houses.
The Bonn inhabitants are a friendly happy lot, I’ve met and spoken with a number of them while wandering around. Sure they hate Donald Trump and very badly require a civics lesson, but, for the most part happy, friendly people. The civics lesson is actually needed by most of this country. I can’t quite figure out why the entire country is up in arms over American steel tariffs that in actuality have absolutely nothing to do with them. Yet, they act out with outrage every time I mention I’m American. As though I’m the one directly to blame for their woes. Don’t these people have their own Government to complain about? The locals have made it their obsession to ask me at every chance “What do you think would happen if the election was held today, would Hilary be elected? I bet Hilary would be elected!” I have variously tried to explain the American electoral process, what would happen if the President were to step down, what would happen if he were impeached and it’s always fallen on deaf ears and followed up with “Ja, we think Hilary would be elected!”. Its no wonder that Angela Merkel took 3 months to form a government here, no one is paying the least attention to her!
The draw to the City and its twin upriver, Koln (Cologne to you non German speakers) is the local pseudo-beer Kolsch. Its cheap, plentiful, tastes good and has the added benefit of being literally cheaper than water. One glass of Kolsch is around 1,99 Euro vs one glass of water around 2,99 Euro. Fortunately, its low in proof and takes about a half dozen to feel any alcohol effects. Unfortunately, another Kolsch is usually right behind the one you just finished by about 10 seconds…. Going to a few restaurants here the waiters treat Kolsch like the Hotel California, you can tab out any time you like, but, you can never leave.
There is of course the local market in the town center that is pretty much ubiquitous in Germany. Some cured meats, cheese, cutesy household items, and at least one stall selling the German National food, Currywurst. If you don’t know what it is, don’t worry. You’re American and won’t understand the fuss made about it. Essentially a roasted Bratwurst, chopped up and placed into a ketchup like sauce with some curry powder on top. The Germans think this is a spicy treat. American’s will taste Taco Bell hot sauce in it and wonder about the sanity of the person making it. Thats not to say its bad, just a little weird.
Koln, Day 2 in country;
What can be said about Koln? Well, as a start, its very new. For the most part the city is less than 70 years old, about the same age as most towns in South Florida. With the noted exception of the Koln Dom (Cologne Cathedral) most of the town was notably ruined by the Royal Air Force in 262 separate air raids from 1942 to 1945. Driving from Bonn to Koln took less than a half an hour following my Sister in Law’s normal for the US and terribly wrong for Germany, erratic driving along the Rhine River. Along the way there are numerous bridges over the Rhine, none to big, but all very different in appearances. The first real site you see is the Dom. Its massive. Huge on a scale of Huge. You can feel the religious oppression oozing out from the very walls of the building. You begin to hear the opening lines of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom Overture in your head, thrumming massive pipe organs blaring along while looking for parking which is conveniently located beneath the Dom in a modern, highly polished parking garage. Not in the least oppressive. Everything is dominated by the Dom. Everything. You can’t go far in the city without seeing it’s spires haunting you.
For lunch we went to the local institution of Fruh Brewery. Its on the same scale as the Dom, fucking massive and very fast paced. One of the four makers of Kolsch brews here and the waitstaff carries massive trays of glasses fresh from the tap and circle around every table at least once every minute. Invariably you will accidentally get in their way, perhaps you’ve indulged a bit much in their product and are a little weeble wobbly. Thats never a good thing, they take particular umbrage to your non experienced American ways and will loudly shout their disapproval at you, of course its all very good natured ribbing, but said in German,nothing sounds particularly warm!
After lunch the girls decided to climb the steps up to the top of the Dom. My son and I abstaining. I’m never a fan of heights and really not a fan of a lot of people climbing stairs all together in an enclosed space. Those of us from the Tri-State Area I’m sure fondly remember their once in a lifetime trip up to the Crown during their 6th grade field trip to the Statue of Liberty. I certainly do and won’t ever place my self in a similar idiotic position again! For the girls it was a situation that couldn’t be missed. German’s on the whole seem to love architecture. I really don’t get it. Its a big scary building and not to mention, a church that holds regular service. Two things I can pass on. So the Gorilla and I wandered up the street containing all the shopping for the city in one area. Its not real. The entirety of the street is made up of souvenir shops and cheap American and British clothing retailers. Not where normal people shop, just the tourists. It’s consumerism at its worst and frankly not why I travel. Yet, the street was packed with British, Chinese, Russians, Germans and the odd Americans looking in awe of cheap nonsense crap that no one would buy if they were at home.
Back in Bonn and the girls headed back to Gelsdorf, after some trepidation of going to a restaurant and having to order in German, My boy and I lucked into a fantastic catch, Im Sud Haus, in downtown Bonn, that was excellent. German food specialties like we just don’t get in South Florida served by a professional and caring waitstaff. Boy has had Jaeger Schnitzle from them every night we’ve been in Bonn.. loves it. One thing we’ve found as a family across the board is stick to German food while in Germany. Everything else tends to be bland and made poorly. Anyway, my hat’s off to the guys at Im Sud Haus for making us feel at home!