Before last month, the last time that my sister, E, and I traveled together for a week was two years ago, when we spent four days in Paris and three days in Toulouse, for the wedding of my lovely friends, P and A. We ate escargot, gazed at masterpieces of the Impressionists, sipped champagne, ate (really) stinky cheese, and danced into the wee hours celebrating the newlyweds in an old French chateau just outside of Toulouse. So, when E arrived in Germany last month, we had a pretty high bar to meet and exceed if we wanted to keep our sister vacation experience trending upward. With Mainz as our home base, we set out on a series of day trips and one over-night to explore the area around my new hometown. This trip was filled with dirndl shopping, huge mugs of beer, a lot of driving on the autobahn, a lot of wine, some actual wine-making (the grape-picking part), and some more beautifully stinky, French cheese.
I cannot begin to imagine the feelings of confusion and fear that I’d feel after having gone to bed, just like any other night, only to wake up and discover that overnight I had been separated from my family, friends, job, and certain freedoms by a fence, later to become a series of walls, manned by armed guards and other devices to prevent escape. And yet, this is exactly what happened to those living in East Berlin one night in August of 1961. Before visiting Berlin, it was easy for me to think of the Wall as just another pop-culture reference in a U2 or Ramones song. However, the hardship, despair, and desperation caused by the GDR’s Berlin Wall, or, as it was officially known, the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” instantly registered as much more when I saw the Bernauer Straße memorial to those who died attempting to escape East Berlin, heard stories of people driving trucks into the wall and digging fifty meter tunnels under it, and observed the lasting disparity between West Berlin and it’s formerly Soviet-controlled counterpart. It was just twenty-five years ago that these two halves were divided, with West Berlin an island cut-off from Soviet-controlled East Germany, and East Berlin cut-off from just about everything. The city suffered such oppression and violence and today, it continues to actively recover, rebuild, and reconnect (they’re still working to connect the water pipes and electricity of East and West Berlin). In response to it’s troubled past and a consequence of it’s current rehabilitation and renaissance, the people of Berlin have taken on a somewhat defiantly proud attitude toward their city. In an interview in 2004, the city’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, gave his famous quote that is now the war cry of the gritty city’s young, proud, and cheeky artists and professionals: “Berlin is arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”)
Founded around 12 BC as a Roman military post, Mainz is a gem of a city sitting on the Rhine River with a rich history and vibrant present. As with any city, it’s character is determined by its inhabitants. And Mainz has had a lot of interesting ones. Fist the Romans, of course, then the Franks, the Germans, and, perhaps most famously, the inventor of moveable type, Johannes Gutenberg, whose name now graces the gates of the city’s university. From 1919 to 1930, following WWI, the city was occupied by French military forces. This French occupation was the fuel for much of the city’s Carnivale (or Fasching) traditions mocking political figures (and the French military) that continue today and make up the most famous Fasching parade in Germany next to Cologne’s.
We exited the train to a rowdy crowd dressed in red and black. “I wonder if there’s a labor strike?” We followed the crowd down a paved road through a heavily wooded area, passing racks of Frankfurt scarves and jerseys, and stands selling large frothy pilsners. “Frankfurt seems a lot cooler than what people say…. and woodsy….” After about a quarter mile, we reached the soccer stadium for the big game of Frankfurt v. Mainz. The only problem was we weren’t looking for it. Turns out that Frankfurt am Main Station and Frankfurt am Main Hauptbahnhof are very different places…. Lesson learned. So we grabbed some beers at one of the stands…when in Rome…and walked back to the “Station” to travel two more stops to our intended destination, downtown Frankfurt. When we stepped out into the grand structure of the Hauptbahnhof, the huge tunnel shape typical of large European train stations, we felt pretty silly for ever thinking that our previous exit into the woods could have been correct. People say I have a knack for direction (no one says that), but I guess this was one of those serendipitous detours that are the special gifts of travel (probably one of many unintentional “detours” that I’ll take while traveling – S is still getting over the time I had us circle Philly (twice) before figuring out how to get in…it’s a very exclusive city and only those with the code may enter).
It is the Americans who have managed to crown minced beef as hamburger, and to send it round the world so that even the fussy French have take to le boeuf hache, le hambourgaire. – Julia Child
Maybe we were feeling nostalgic, maybe we were wanting to marry our American roots with the ingredients of our current home and the beverages of our European neighbors. Maybe we had just learned that people around the world throw “American parities” where the theme is represented by red solo cups and popcorn and we just wanted to set the record straight. Maybe I had just found this new blog of burger genius and felt inspired. Whatever it was, last weekend S and I and our friend Mike decided to throw a burger night. We spent the day gathering ingredients and had a blast following this easy six step recipe for a great burger night in Mainz:
My sister sent me this video of Chris D’Elia’s standup routine, “Scary Germans & British Heist Movies.” The scene where the Germans are at his birthday party and he’s afraid to eat their cake made me cry laughing. But in fairness to most Germans, they are an incredibly friendly and fun loving people, although usually quite reserved. My German teacher once remarked that when one gets on the bus, all the Germans are quietly looking out the window or reading a book and generally keeping to themselves and being German, but during festivals, everyone is hugging and waving hello…they’re acting like Americans.” It’s true that Germans are generally very reserved, which can make Americans perceive them as cold and creepy. It’s also true that many Americans stereotype Germans based on old WWII movies. Hello! We’re not all cowboys and Germans aren’t all evil spies or dictators. After living in Germany for only three months amongst “the Germans” and observing them in their natural habitat, I already feel compelled to stand up and say, “Germans are humans, too. And they’re nice.” But…first I have to tell this story that I think is hilarious about a German being not so warm….
I woke up so excited. Showered. Dressed in my most “I’m stylish and put together everyday, naturally, and will be a fine, upstanding, no-trouble-causing resident if you grant my visa request” outfit. I thought about wearing a suit or at least a blazer and decided it would look like I was trying too hard and had to compensate for some lack of good character. So, I wore black skinny jeans, a delicate winter white crew neck sweater with three-quarter sleeves, low black-patent wedges, and a gold and tan-leather statement necklace. I put my hair up in a neat bun and donned my long black winter coat. “Would you give me a visa?,” I asked S. “Absolutely. I’d give you two.” I showed up responsibly early to the 8:00am meeting. I had all of the documents that they told me to have: passport, passport photos, bank statement, letter of support from S and his landlord saying that I have a place to live, a copy of the lease, and a few other forms.