Sep 1, 2009

Lost Diaries 9

To Germany and Back Again:
An American’s Tale
By Scarlett Pourciau

Thursday, June 30, 2004

Our train for Salzburg, Austria, left at 14:40, which is the earliest that we have left town yet. We were really excited, since we had reserved a sleeper car (“couchette”) for the second leg of the trip and would therefore be sleeping on the train and saving cash on a hotel room for Thursday night. We were in a little bit of a hurry getting to the train station, because by the time Damon got home from school we only had about an hour before the train left. We made it.

Our first train went from Lyon to Strasbourg, which is in the northeast corner of France. There we had a bit of a layover, so we went to a Courtepaille restaurant near the train station to eat. We thought about exploring the city, but the sky looked like it might rain, so we decided to eat instead. Courtepaille is some type of chain over here. It was pretty good, Damon had chicken cordon bleu and I had some chicken on a skewer. We were obviously in with the early bird special crowd, since we were the only 2 there under age 60. We were back at the train station in time to board the train.

When we made the reservations, Damon requested first class couchettes, but there were none on that train, so we had to get second class. Damon was concerned about this because his friend Clarence had one the last weekend and said it was too small. When we got to our “room” there was a French lady there already and A LOT of luggage. Turns out our other roommate was a 15 year old Hungarian boy who had been living in France for a year as an exchange student and was now moving all his earthly possessions back home. The way that the couchettes are laid out is that there is a very narrow middle section, and three bunks on each wall. When we got there, the middle bunks were not made out yet, as they can be stowed when not in use to create a couch effect on the bottom bunk. We ended up hanging out on the bottom bunk of one side of the room with the French lady for a while as the Hungarian boy continued to pack massive quantities of luggage into the room. She was a German teacher, so she spoke French, German, and English, and we enjoyed talking to her for a while, but I was pretty worried about the bedding situation. Lots of the trains are sold out, and therefore we stood the chance of having 2 more roommates on the way, and definitely nowhere to put them with all that Hungarian luggage. After the train took off, crew members came by to give us tiny pillows and folded sheets. The sheets are made like a sleeping bag, sewn on one side so that you lay on one half and the other half covers you. I made my bed on the top bunk, and was ready to retire when Damon decided that there was more room on the top bunk and he needed it. So then I moved to the second bunk, re-made my bed, backwards of course, so I had to make it twice. The space between the second bunk and the third is less than 2 feet, so this upped the level of difficulty. The space between the third and the ceiling is probably 2 and a half feet. Anyway, while I was struggling like a contortionist to make my bed for the second time, an interesting thing happened on the third level. The French lady, who was occupying the bunk opposite Damon, began to undress. She took off her shirt, she took off her pants, she took off her bra. Then she calmly sat there naked and put on her pink sleeping shirt. I was rather taken aback when I saw her descending the ladder in a new outfit, but I thought surely she must have left the room without me realizing it to change in the WC. But this was not the case, and Damon was the unfortunate witness of this cultural difference. Up until he saw this atrocity, he was debating whether or not it was rude to take his socks off to sleep. After this event, he decided that the socks were coming off, rude or not. We both slept fully clothed, however, regardless of what the Romans, or the French in this case, were doing.

We then settled in for the night. I set multiple alarms on my watch, since we would be getting off the train at 4:44 in the morning. It took me a while to go to sleep, but I finally did and slept rather well. Damon read some homework and then tried to catch some z’s. Unfortunately, the beds are made for people who are 5’2”, (my feet were hanging off the end) and since Damon is about a foot taller than that, there was a lot of extra husband up there with nowhere to go. He claims to have banged his head on the ceiling no less than 20 times, once for each time he woke up cramped and tried to sit up. You can imagine it was not our longest or best night of sleep. Plus, when we woke up in the morning, the French lady went through her wardrobe ritual in reverse, once again revealing all her business to Damon, so he was given a little 35 year old good morning nudity to wake up to. We were both glad to arrive in Salzburg.

When we were off the train, we made our way to the WC. Of course, they were pay WC’s, and we each paid our 50 cents to a large German lady and went inside. She literally ushers you to your stall, so even though we had both just gone on the train, we went again for good measure. Then we came out to accomplish our real purpose for visiting, brushing our teeth. Alas, there was a prominent sign posted on each mirror that body washing and tooth washing were strictly prohibited, so this was a wasted trip and we had to simply wash our hands and walk dejectedly back outside still possessing rather pungent morning breath. We decided that since nothing was open yet, we would set off with some pages from the Rick Steves book to complete his Salzburg historic walk while the sun came up. We secured our belongings in a locker and walked out of the train station in time for it to start raining. I knew that it was going to rain that day in Salzburg, but I thought we had a little time before it started. We had to go back to the locker, open it, get our raincoats, and then pay to close it again. After this we set out in the cold rain, wandering in the direction that we thought was right. We hiked through town for about 30 minutes in the rain until we got to the Old Town section that we were looking for. I had to hold my rain coat closed the entire time, because I tore it last weekend while we were cycling in Interlaken. Also, our feet were very quickly soaked, and we were both wearing our only pair of tennis shoes. By the time we made it to the Old Town, we were too cold and wet and miserable and it was raining too hard to complete the walk, so we ducked into a hotel and asked when we could check in and where we could find a coffee shop that would be open to serve us something hot and let us dry out for a minute. The only coffee shop was back near the train station, so as we left Damon had the bright idea to get on a bus and just ride it around to see the city. We did this, and it was delightful because we finally got dry for a few minutes and arrived back at the train station shortly. There was a Burger King there, so we got off thinking that it would be open and we could have breakfast there. Unfortunately, unlike American Burger King, there was no breakfast to be had, and it did not open until 10. There was a little bakery thing there, so we ordered chocolate chip muffins (gross) and a huge cinnamon roll along with 2 hot chocolates and staked out a table. We ate and drank as slowly as possible and then headed upstairs to the tourist information office to buy our Salzburg cards. The Salzburg card is 20 euros and gives you free access to all the sites, plus a free bus pass for 24 hours. We got 2, and retrieved our baggage, then hopped a bus for the hotel. We were able to store our luggage there until 11 when we could check in. We asked a few questions and then set out for the fort, which is the main attraction of Salzburg. On the way we passed the Salzburg Cathedral, where Mozart was organist for 2 years. We peeked inside at the “whisper dome” which is supposed to create fantastic echoes when you are in the top of it, but the museum section was not open yet, so we trudged on. We made our way to the funicular, which is a train like thing that pulls you up the mountain to the fortress. It was neat. At the top is the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which holds wonderful city views and at least 3 separate museums. One was a marionette museum, and we hit that first. It was very cute and gave me some idea of why they put the “Lonely Goatherd” into the Sound of Music (SOM). We then did the tour of the fortress with the audio guides. This was much shorter and less informative than I thought it would be. The one interesting thing was the torture chamber and dungeon, which was never actually used for torture but rather as a prison for enemies of the crown and Protestants. I told Damon this is where his people persecuted my people and denied them their freedom of religion. There was also an exhibit on the castle kitchen, and it made me very thankful for the advent of the microwave. We really enjoyed the exhibit and were back down in town around noon. We swung by St. Peter’s Church and graveyard, which the graveyard in the SOM is patterned after, and climbed the hill behind it to see the cliff dwellings of ancient monks. Unfortunately, only their chapel was open. We stopped off at the hotel to check in the room and change Damon’s socks, then rather than taking a nap, which is what we felt like, we set off back into the rain to go to Mozart’s birthplace. We stopped on the way in a street market to grab some lunch. Damon had a bratwurst, which was great. Spicy and served with mustard and grated cheese on top and a roll to munch on as well. I opted for some strawberries from what is supposed to be a great organic food market, so says Rick Steves. The strawberries did not have a good flavor and the ones on bottom were rotten, so that was a bust. I trust that man less and less. We went to Mozart’s birthplace, and enjoyed that exhibit, then on to his second home in Salzburg, and got the audio guide there, which made for a nice but time consuming activity. I grabbed a sweet snack from a delicious smelling bake shop…the city was full of them. It appeared to be a donut hole covered with cinnamon and sugar and it was delightful. Damon had another big cinnamon roll, this one dipped in chocolate. It looked like he enjoyed his as well. After this we stopped by the Mirabell Gardens, which is home to the arbor, fountain, and statues used in the SOM. If it had not been raining we would have had a do-re-mi moment, but the rain really put a damper on the mood. It was still very beautiful, though, and I could picture the von Trapp children singing and dancing gaily around the gardens. We then hopped a bus for Hellbrunn Castle. It was a long way out of town, and we actually missed our bus stop and had to wait for a new bus and ride back a stop. We arrived just in time for an English tour of the gardens, and the big attraction is that the Prince-Bishop who built them installed trick fountains to shock and surprise his guests during the summer. It was really a very beautiful garden and the fountains were very cleverly disguised. One featured an entire puppet show of a working town running on water power. It was from the 1700’s and really cool. After you are totally engrossed in the musical show, you are sprayed with water from behind. The tour guide felt bad for everyone since we had been wet all day and warned us about most of the fountains. There was a castle to tour there also, but we were running out of time and we had to see the real piece de resistance, the "16 Going on 17" Gazebo from the SOM. We made it there quickly and I was ready to teach Damon the song and dance and get out of the rain for a few minutes, but it was locked. Apparently there are too many wanna-be Leisl’s out there to leave it open and vulnerable. Time was running out and we had a schedule to keep, so we hopped a bus for the hotel. We had less than 45 minutes to bathe, “wash our teeth” and head out again, so we accomplished this in record time. We then set out for the SOM Dinner Theater, to which we had reservations. We were told we would have table mates, and were a little apprehensive about that, but when they got there we knew them already. We had seen them at the train station that morning trying to use the restroom. All they had was a 50 euro bill and the people would not let the woman use the restroom until she stomped her foot and cried. It was a daughter who is doing an internship in Geneva for the summer and her mom who came to visit her. (the mom was the crier) The girl was just embarrassed because her mom had been wearing a Fraulein Maria hat all day and singing everywhere they went. Dinner was served first, and it was one of the best meals of Europe. It was of course Schnitzel with noodles followed by a wonderful crisp apple strudel. I am not one for apple pie, so I thought I would not like this either, but it was great. I hope I can find a recipe for it once I get home. Schnitzel apparently is chicken. It was good, though. Then the show started. There are 5 singers, 3 women and 2 men, plus an obnoxious lounge lizard on piano. One of the men was excellent, the rest were so-so. Two of the girls were Italians, and their accents really distracted you. Overall I give it a 2.5 on the dinner theater scale, only because of the wonderful food quality. The show felt forced, and they required way too much audience participation, which I loathe. They asked me what one of my favorite things was at one point, so of course I had to say, “Raindrops on roses.” The next man blew it by saying, "Travel." Damon was mortified the whole time that he would be called on. We enjoyed our table mates, though, and had a good time overall. We then went back to the hotel to settle in for the night.

Saturday, July 2, 2005

You may be wondering what happened to the July 1 heading. Since we never really experienced much of a night, I left it out. We were exhausted that night after site seeing in the rain all day, and slept like babies at a great hotel, Hotel Pension am Dom. We were up before 7 to catch our train to Fussen, Germany, and grabbed breakfast at the hotel before hitting the road. We rode the bus to the train station and our train was there waiting, so we boarded and settled down to sleep. Damon was on the floor and I was curled up on top of my backpack, using it for a pillow. We had gotten train information that morning, and they printed it out for us, but it was in German, so we could not really understand it. When we got on the train it did not list Fussen as a stop, and when Damon pointed this out, I said it was probably because it was not a major stop. Looking at the schedule printout, it looked to me like the train stopped for a really long time in Munich, but I figured that the man would have told us if there were any abnormalities, and just went to sleep. The train was supposed to arrive in Fussen a few minutes before noon, so we set my watch and passed out. I slept until about 11, I was so tired. Damon did not sleep as long, as he was cold and had to go get some soup from the dining car. Around noon, the train appeared to be passing through a large city, and I thought Fussen was a small town. There were lots of big buildings with revolving Mercedes symbols on them also, which I found odd, but I figured maybe all of Germany was like that. Turns out we were in Stuttgart, home of Mercedes Benz, and 4 hours out of the way on the trip to Fussen. What the reservations desk had failed to make clear was that we were supposed to change trains in Munich. We grabbed our stuff, hopped off the train, and found another train going back to Munich. Damon scrambled to get info on how to get to Fussen while I cried on the train platform. I had planned everything so carefully, and now it was ruined, because it was going to take us 4 hours to get back to where we were supposed to be already, and we would miss the tour that we had reserved at the castles. I became more inconsolable after I looked in the Rick Steves book and discovered that the last tour was at 16:00, which was 4 minutes after we would arrive at the train station. Damon left the car to try to fix things while I sat in the train to Augsberg and cried. He ended up buying a calling card, borrowing people’s cell phones, and pleading with the people at the castle to change our reservations and let us still see both castles when we arrived. The Nazi’s are alive and well in Germany. They are running tours of 2 castles in Bavaria. Even though the castles did not close until 18:00 and we would be there with 2 hours to spare, they would not allow us to visit both, we had to choose one. Damon chose the bigger, more impressive castle, with the less informative tour. I was crushed, because my original plan had been to spend a leisurely day touring BOTH castles and taking a ride on a nearby luge. Now we were spending double the necessary time on a train, would only get to see one castle, and luging was out of question. This might be a good time to comment on the German/Austrian attitude. Even on the train, the people were extremely short and rude. They were smart alecks when we asked for directions, and very legalistic and inflexible. There was no reason they could not have let us see both castles, other than they are mean and nasty. Not everyone was this way, for example the man at the hotel was a sweetheart, but others were not so nice. They are also a very big people. Their toilets and trains were much bigger. Damon could stretch all the way out and sleep, and I could not even reach the foot rest. So, Damon, me, and my bad attitude rode the train for another 4 hours and arrived at Fussen. We took a cab to the castles, bought our tickets, and grabbed a bratwurst to eat on the run. You may recall that I had not eaten any lunch, and it was now 16:00. The trains that we were on after noon had no dining cars. We made the 30 minute hike to the castle in 15 minutes. It was treacherous. So steep we are both sore now. When we got there we shot some video and waited for our tour to begin. The tour was only 30 minutes, and there were about 60 people on it. It did not give a ton of info, but the castle was really neat. It was built around the 1880’s by Mad King Ludwig II, who was eventually ruled insane and incapable of ruling Bavaria, dethroned, and sent to a mental hospital, where he and his doctor were found drowned in a lake the next day. Very mysterious. We bought a book to share, plus took about a million pictures of the outside. You were not supposed to film inside, but Damon did, because some other people were, so he thought it was okay. He was admonished. After the tour, we hiked to Marie’s Bridge for a better view, and then climbed a mountain to get an even better view. Yes, you read that right. Damon made me climb a mountain to get a better picture. The castle was on the side of a mountain suspended above a quaint village and waterfall with more mountains in the background. It looked like a fairytale. The view was breathtaking (not in the asthma sense…Damon did not even use the inhaler…I was so proud!) but then I started to think about those people who were eaten by the bear, and I started wondering why the Germans have bears carved all over everything, and I got panicky and begged to leave. We escaped the rough terrain without becoming a bear snack. On the way down the mountain, Damon decided he was tired of reading maps and would do a little orienteering to find the bottom. This resulted in us climbing/sliding through a densely wooded, very steep area of the mountain, at the bottom of which was a rock wall bearing strict instructions, “Don’t Step on the Wall! Danger!” That was great since we were climbing over the wall to make it back to the paved road. I was wearing some capris from Limited, and I think that I should now write them a letter and let them know that their pants are versatile enough for rock climbing and sliding down mountains on your butt. We got back to town and shared a cab with 2 team Korea girls who spoke English and German. When we got back near the train station, we ducked into an Italian restaurant (all the German restaurants were closed already) and ordered some quick pizza and water from a man who spoke no English. To order the water I just covered water in every language that I knew, “Water, L’eau, Aqua…” until he understood one. It was very interesting. We were so starving we scarfed the pizzas in about 5 minutes and made the train right on time. We arrived in Munich a little before midnight, and were able to find a decently priced hotel right across the street from the train station.

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Sunday morning we were up a little before 8 to get dressed and grab breakfast at the hotel, store our bags, and board the train for Dachau. The site opens at 9, and we took the 8:46 train. Once we got there, we had to take a bus to the actual concentration camp. Our train for Lyon left at 12:40, so we grabbed some audio guides and started the tour. We would have liked to do a guided tour, but none started until 10:30, and they took over 4 hours, so the audio guide was the best that we could do. Riding the train out that morning, I tried to imagine others who had taken that fateful train ride over 60 years ago. The train produces a swaying motion much like the feeling of being on a boat. How horrible to sway along the tracks in a cattle car, pressed against other prisoners and bound for a destination you did not know and a fate that was based on the whims of your persecutors. The remnants of a train track and concrete unloading dock are visible outside of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Brings Freedom”) gate. Strangely, this was the first day in our weekend that it had not rained. The sky was a brilliant blue dotted with fluffy white clouds and the birds were happily chirping in the forest surrounding the camp. The cheery weather and singing birds seemed quite out of place. Visitors to the site seem to hold their breath. No one makes a sound. It is the same type of ominous feeling one gets in a cemetery. Dachau was the original concentration camp, and the one on which the rest were modeled. From the gate, we worked our way to the bunker, which was a long building that was used to check in prisoners as well as hold special prisoners. I am not sure how many cells there were, but the halls extended on both sides for what seemed like a mile. The camp was in use from 1933-1945, and during that time the original bunker, which was a converted building from some type of abandoned factory, was torn down using inmate labor and rebuilt as it stands today. Besides the regular sized cells, the Nazis installed what were known as “standing cells.” They accomplished this by taking a regular cell and building 4 smaller cells inside it, each large enough to hold a prisoner without allowing them to sit or recline in any way. When the Americans liberated the camp, they took over the bunker and used it to imprison Nazi war criminals. They found the standing cells so barbaric that they ripped them all out. Next we moved on to the museum building, which is full of information on specific prisoners, medical experiments performed on the prisoners, and liberation information. The camp was built to house 6,000 prisoners, but when the American soldiers arrived to liberate it, 32, 000 were being held on the premises. The overcrowding had contributed to the spread of a typhoid epidemic, so that was one of the first things that the soldiers had to try to deal with. Imagine yourself as a young American soldier, faced with 32,000 walking skeletons who need your help but don’t even speak your language. The Americans were also greeted by piles of corpses decomposing in front of the crematorium. A coal shortage had caused the death toll to outpace the ovens, and the ones that were not buried in mass graves were simply left to rot. The crematorium was separated from the rest of the camp, and is only today accessible by a pedestrian bridge installed for camp visitors. The crematorium was designed with several disinfectant chambers for discarded clothing. The concept was for people to be herded into the first room and told to undress. Their clothing would then be taken to the disinfectant chamber next door and they would be ushered into another room where they would be instructed on taking a shower. When they entered the shower room, which had a curiously low ceiling, they would be showered with poisonous gas rather than water. The next room was to hold their bodies before they could be placed in the ovens next door. On the other side of the oven chamber was an additional room to hold bodies of people who had died of “natural” causes such as starvation and disease in the regular camp. As far as we know these gas chambers were never used, but who can be sure? We also toured the barracks, which were built to house 200 people each, but in the end held 2,000. Only 2 barracks stand, and they were reconstructed for the exhibit, but originally 30 such buildings existed on the camp grounds. The foundations of the missing buildings are outlined in concrete and filled with gravel to give visitors perspective on the size of the camp. I think that may be one of the most shocking things about it. The sheer size of the facility, and its existence in the backyards of regular citizens. It is pathetic to think that so many knew of its existence and did nothing. One of the well documented punishments that was inflicted on prisoners for rule infractions was called “pole hanging.” The practice involved handcuffing a prisoner behind their back and then suspending them from a pole in that position. If you clasp your hands behind your back and lift them as high as you can, you can get a glimpse of how miserable this must have been. The shoulders would be ripped completely out of socket and the pain would be excruciating. The camp also sponsored 169 satellite camps, each holding anywhere from 100 to 1000 prisoners. The exhibit was staggering, and you could spend all day without scratching the surface. We saw it as best we could on our schedule, ended up missing the bus back and having to run halfway across the town to catch another. We made it back to Munich with little time to spare to board our train, and did so more quietly and thoughtfully than normal. 10 hours later we were back in Lyon.

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