Monday, July 15, 2013

Sarly goes to Savona

We've traveled a rough 'Z' through western Europe...Cologne, Prague, Munich, Basel, Mosset, Barcelona...and now Savona, Italy brings our trip to a close. I'm sitting at the Malpensa airport near Milan, waiting on the flight that will take us home. I am in love with airports, train stations, bus stops, loading docks, and any other place funneling people from all walks of life onto a common path. I have a (very secret) sense of glee when things go wrong and we are all stuck together for hours, each of us balanced on the edge of uncertainty. Yesterday, when we left Savona for Milan, the first train was thirty minutes late, the next stop required some lightning changes, and just before the final leg, we discovered all the local train workers were on a strike from 9 am to 5 pm. Abandoned at a large train stop Carly aptly referred to as Deadsville, we camped out on the platform and used my new Swiss Army knife to create a picnic of olives, focaccia (moist flatbread), tomatoes, and peppers. Information mining from the handful of other unfortunates consisted of rough drawings and a lot of question marks: maybe the evening train would come; maybe it wouldn't. I propped myself up against my pillar of a backpack, loving the experience of it all, thinking of how cool it would be if we had to camp in the station all night, or trek through town and find a room, or maybe, I told Carly, it would start hailing and then it would be a really good story. It did start raining, and for the sake of everyone else I retracted my words about hail - although we were under shelter and I don't think it would have hurt much for the additional fun.

The six-seventeen train finally creaked in to pick us up, already overstuffed. Determined, we shoved on despite the riders' pointed looks at our fat backpacks and extra handbags. More people pressed in from behind us, so by the time the doors shaved shut, we were smashed like chickens on a chicken truck. At one point, the train stopped dead on its tracks between stations, and I wondered how many hours I'd be standing with nearly sixty pounds of baggage on my person. Still, I loved the game - all the way through getting off at the station four hours later than planned, finding nice Italian boys to give us a WiFi password, and calling up a ride to our night's lodgings. Yay for problem-solving!

But, enough about my weird eagerness for troublesome situations. Italy, with her citizens and culture, is brimming with energy and life. The bursting vowels of their language, their tight family environment, the passionate interactions and the rich smoothness of their pasta put these people close to my heart. We stayed in Savona (a modest coastal town in northwestern Italy) with Carly's aunt Kathy and her Italian husband Michele (MiKAYlay) - and how fortunate we were to have such tour guides! They took us in for several nights, served us fabulous food, set up our lodging, and donated their beach chairs and umbrella for our enjoyment. They also interpreted the language and culture for us, i.e. it's early to eat before 8:30pm, the bars open for croissants and shots of espresso in the morning, and you aren't allowed to touch the fruit stands without plastic gloves.

Like the French, the Italians love their food. When Michele and Kathy took us out for authentic Neapolitan pizza, the waiter brought out the chef, Pippo, to discuss what courses we should order and in what order we should eat them in. When he discovered we were American, he threw up his hands and exclaimed we must want fettuccine alfredo - which he could not serve us because it is not on any Italian menu anywhere. Also, we could not order spaghetti and meatballs together, because they are always eaten in separate courses. With that bit of education, we proceeded to order focaccia formagia (flat pizza stuffed with cheese), margherita pizza, a platter of whole fried anchovies, and spaghetti in some kind of amazing white sauce. While waiting, I observed a hubbub around one table when the grandfather came in and grabbed his grandchildren to kiss their heads while the adults greeted him all in the same moment. At another table, two teenage boys laughed with their grandfather as they each ordered a ten-inch pizza. I saw this scene over and over again throughout our stay - the older generation active, welcome, and involved with the younger on the beach, through the grocery, and in the streets.  Kathy joked that all the introverts had been bred out of the Italian race, and I'm inclined to agree.

Savona is the first European town we've been to where no one speaks English, but ordering from menus always results in some kind of good food and we spent the majority of our time on the beach anyway. The Mediterranean Sea is my new favorite body of water: buoyant enough to make napping in the water a possibility, calm enough to be a lake, and clear enough to count the barnacles twenty feet below. We took a day trip down to Cinque Terre, a chain of five small towns built onto the shoulders of mountains where they dip into the sea - and while they are as beautiful as everyone says, they are not as easy to hike as you might think. We climbed over three hundred steps and waited at single-file paths cutting along steep ridges, wandering amongst olive groves that clung to the steep hillsides. Our legs were well-conditioned from our month of backpacking, but other (mostly sunburned) tourists were attempting the hike in bikinis, flip-flops, skirts, and various other states of ill-preparedness. Overwhelmed by the obnoxious herds in the towns, we escaped in an ocean kayak to a small cove where fresh water fell thirty feet onto salt-mossed rocks, splashing into the sea at the shore's edge. The layered chunks of rock surrounding the cove offered high dives and heated drying, and we washed off the day in idyllic perfection.

One final thing I must highlight in this extensive post: the privilege of attending an Italian opera in the courtyard of a twelfth-century castle. The three-hour experience began at nine, just as the sun set and the swallows dove to their nests with their wings audibly ripping the air above our heads. As the orchestra stood I was struck with the matronly beauty of the violinist in the first chair, her grey hair tumbling in free curls down her back. The conductor entered to the wild applause of the elderly audience and I was reminded that the opera belongs to the musicians as much as the singers. No microphones marred their voices, and the sea breezes lifted the set to make it come alive, a part of the castle and its time. The story of Rigoletto played out in gilted gowns, hawk-feathered collars, leather pants and boots beneath ominous overcoats, dancing nymphs in scant costumes and galloping fawns in furry loin cloths; love and revenge and tragedy all rolled into one. The crowd awarded every piece with applause, and even the clever set changes were thoroughly appreciated. Half the cast took their bow at intermission; the other half came out one by one at the end for much thunderous stomping of feet and shouts of "Bravo! Bravo!" from their admirers.

Each country has given me a glimpse of its richness and character - and each country has resonated with a separate piece of my own character. Italy celebrates life, work, and the family, and these three qualities are part of my core. I can't think of a more fitting dessert for our sampling of the European buffet.

We're airborne now and somewhere over the Atlantic, but I think I can't cease writing because to do so means the end of the story. There are other books on the shelf - yet no matter how much I insist to myself that I am entering my next adventure, the wanderer in me is not yet ready to finish this one. I've always struggled to transition from fiction to reality, but am learning that without the reality of life, the story has no context and its lessons are lost. So here's to the mundane, to the everyday, and to the constraints of schedule: may I not let this story be wasted, but recycle it as fuel for the light of tomorrow!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sarly goes to Barcelona

Okay - I'm not going to tell you when and where I'm writing this post, but let's just say things got a little out of order and the hubbub of Barcelona (pronounced Barthelona) is already far behind us. We decided to add this city onto our itinerary while luxuriating in France, and despite the fact that Barcelona has an incredible amount to offer, we barely nicked the surface as we passed through. During our last supper in France we discovered that our initial lodging arrangements had fallen through, leaving us stranded during the peak of traveler season. After a few phone calls, we found a hostel owner who assured us he would "have a solution for you" when we arrived. Avery had already planned on dropping another backpacker-friend off at the Barcelona airport, and thus five people three backpacks and a suitcase buckled into the tiny two-door and headed for the border.

Leaving the French countryside was bittersweet, and we entered Barcelona a bit skeptical of its city-ness. Up to this point, every step of our trip had mounted upon the shoulders of the last and I wasn't sure the pyramid could go any higher. But the great thing about low expectations is that they are easy to surpass, and the Barcelona experience was so different from the others that it started its own pyramid, anyway. We set our feet on the ground on the port side of La Rambla - a famous street filled with tourist gimmicks and pricey restaurants. Christopher Columbus stood atop of a fifty-foot pole pointing us towards the ocean; we ignored him and walked inland through the gothic district towards the Pensió 2000 (from which we would discover our lodging solution). La Rambla offered everything from flowers to ice cream to clothes in compact stalls, but we found it rather pricey and quite...squeaky. Every few feet, some kid was chomping on a voice-altering squeaky toy or a local was hawking them through demonstration.

The building containing the Pensió 2000 was unmarked and not much to look at, but after climbing three flights of beautiful old stone stairs and encountering a door with the doorknob set in the middle, I decided I liked its character. But when we tramped in and dropped our heavy packs, the owner informed us there were no more rooms available. Carly threw me a glance and I hastily reminded the man of our names and the mysterious solution he had promised us. His face lit up and all of a sudden we went from staying in a crowded hostel to being given keys to his personal house, where his wife was waiting to show us into their private guest wing. Two blocks later and a flurry of Spanish later, we were unpacking onto a queen bed, oohing over the robes and spacious bathroom and shower, investigating the tea and coffee varieties, and opening the full-length doors to the tiny balcony overlooking the street. A very good solution, indeed!

Barcelona is one of those places which I have marked to come back to - mainly because it took a few days to hit our groove and then we were already leaving.  We went thrifting through a chain of Humana stores, and the deals are so great I think it may be worth a plane ticket for a new wardrobe. In the smattering of reading I'd done about Barcelona, I learned about the world famous architect Antoni Gaudí, so we bit the bullet and purchased tickets for the open-air tourist buses with their narrated bits of information. We visited the Sagrada Familia, a church of no style I've ever seen before: something like romanesque-meets-gothic-meets-candy land-meets-Disney. Parapets and arches looked as if they were dripping liquid stone, and at the top of one peak sculpted birds played in a sculpted tree as if from the Twelve Days of Christmas. The usual saints and bible characters decorated the doorways, with palm trees for doorposts and giant clusters of fruit decorating the tops of spires. During our stroll through Park Güell (designed by Gaudí), I admired the way he used powerful artistic themes in his structures, making them very modern but not caustic or discordant. Sharp angles were always tempered by rounded forms, and bold outcroppings were always balanced by the rest of the structure so that when you took it all in, you felt inspired and calmed instead of thrown off balance and hung in suspense. One of Gaudí's apartment buildings undulated like waves along the street; another supported giant white eye-masks on its balconies as if each apartment was waiting for the neighboring buildings to get up and dance. Riding on the top of the open-air bus gave us an appreciation of Barcelona's architecture: nearly every apartment building has some rooftop garden and plants in each railing, and all of them have texture and dimension of various kinds, mixing up the cityscape and introducing some excitement for each street.

It took us some time to find good food, but by using the power of Yelp (restaurant app) we found a promising place for our last night. I asked the waitress if she thought it would be a twenty, thirty, or forty minute wait, and she just shrugged. Europeans consider it rude to rush a check and a single table may turnover only once during the course of an evening. But soon we were sipping wine and dining on seafood paella, a dish where whole prawns swim between gaping mussels in an ocean of rice with chunks of squid and octopus in a savory orange sauce. If for that dish alone, I'll be back. By eleven o'clock we were paid up and back on the metro - but the evening was just getting started. Behind a church, through a courtyard, and down a narrow hall we stepped out of Europe and onto the Swing Maniacs dance floor, the upbeat jazz throwing us back onto our American roots. I danced with some incredible leads that night, kicked a few shins (I can't yet do the tandem Charleston), and found out my brother's movie ( is known across the globe. Language barriers don't matter when your arms and legs do the communicating, and that night of dancing in Barcelona is an experience I'll never forget.

We departed for Italy the next day, this time by boat through the Mediterranean. We enjoyed a whole new cultural experience as the ferry was filled with Moroccans and other Arabic-speakers, and we wove through the (dry) pool room filled with plastic tables of smoky card games to set up a picnic up on the top deck. Later, we snuggled down in our cozy cabin for some great bonding time, and I went to sleep incredibly grateful that God had put Carly and I together on this trip, for her friendship, and for the great lessons I was learning. We are different in many ways - but at this point in the trip, we'd figured out how to make our quirks compliment each other in stellar fashion and now I'm afraid normal life will be strange without her.

Next up? Italian beaches and major relaxation.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sarly goes to Mosset

The problem with getting behind is that experience doesn't wait. I'm sitting down to record idyllic scenes from Mosset, a French village unsure if it's medieval or modern, but we've already been through city shock in Barcelona, a cruise on the Mediterranean, and the heart of Genoa, Italy. But Mosset was the pinnacle of our adventure. The buildings are stone with their wood doors set on iron hinges; at times the the blacksmith's hammer can be heard echoing through the village at dusk. A tree has been growing out of the church tower since mid-eighteen hundreds. At one point during our stay, a bearded man with gentle eyes, a sack, and a hoe on his shoulders showed up at the door like a vision of peasantry from the past; he was once a Franciscan monk but now cultivates an artistic garden and paints silk tapestries. Of all the places I looked forward to visiting on this trip, this destination held the most excitement for me: mostly because of who I was going to see, and partially because of the mystery of where we were going. Before arrival I only knew that my old sitter, Avery, waited for us in a one-room mill somewhere in the Pyrenees of southern France. Nothing could have prepared me for the piece of paradise we experienced there.

Some of my earliest memories include Avery, but she moved before I was ten and I hadn't seen her since. Perhaps it was strange of me to ask sixteen years later if I might crash her current place in France, but I'd always felt close to her and it may be her influence I have to thank for my wanderlust. We're both travelers and seekers and we connect through an unspoken mystery I won't even try to explain. Still, it was a bit of a shock to walk off the train and discover I now stood a head and shoulders taller than someone I once squinted to look up at. Yet besides that slight change in perspective, she hasn't changed a bit from my memories - still glowing, energetic, and beautiful. 

Coming from Switzerland, where you can't find a loose end if you tried, we had initially thought the French a bit smelly (it's true), tardy (delayed trains), and disheveled (crumbling buildings). But in the same day we made those judgements, they were cut down to size with a little history and French hospitality.  Us and our two backpacks barely fit into Avery's two-door hatchback, but we wound our way up the valley and past the hot springs to Mosset, a village stacked upon itself against a mountainside. If the Alps shrouded their grandeur from us, the Pyrenees rolled out theirs with style. The region of Catalonia is as ancient as the mountains around her, and what we'd mistaken as unkempt buildings are the ruins of medieval history. Stone towers are staggered every few mountain peaks as an ancient message system to warn of sea-faring invaders, and forever-old aqueducts still provide water to crops and animals. Terrace after terrace mount the hillsides, and each farmer is assigned a day and time they are allowed to gather water - the schedule has existed for centuries. And perhaps the French aren't quite as timely as the Swiss, but their cuisine puts simple cheese and bread to shame.

After parking the car near two rosemary bushes bigger than the car itself, we crossed the threshold into Avery's kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and den. It was homey, spacious, and cozy all at once. Sitting down at the wood table, we started off with white wine and moved to red throughout the meal, as any customary French citizen would do. The first course consisted of what I inadequately dubbed a "flower salad:" mixed greens and tomatoes seasoned with sprigs of dill and parsley and set off with rose petals, nasturtiums, and any other edible flower or herb she'd found growing nearby. Eating an orange blossom on a fork seemed strange, but it only took one bite to convince me; my mom may now have to chase more than my horse from her flower beds. The explosion of sweet flavor flew backwards and upwards such that I smelled the flower after I had tasted it - from the other side of my nose! And if the salad wasn't enough of an experience, it was followed by vegetables roasted in olive oil and fig vinegar, sausage anointed in homemade apricot sauce, and a dessert of thick yogurt with lemon shortbread and rum-soaked cherries, garnished with lavender and served in terra cotta mugs. Every French meal is wrapped up with the steam of a hot drink, and we sipped on tea picked from a garden tree while nibbling squares of dark chocolate to bring it all to a close.

I can't detail each of our meals: but I can say we had at least three glasses of wine at every dinner (and most lunches, too) and that courses are a far better way to eat a meal than throwing it all on your plate at one time. One day we packed wine, cheese, bread, and paté onto a mule and spent the day trekking about the Pyrenees examining ruins, finding wild plants, observing landmarks (such as the tipped-over mountain where the aliens were supposed to have returned in 2012), and learning about the history of the region from our very knowledgable guide, Pierre. Not only does Pierre rent out his donkeys and mules to adventurous tourists, but also his yard as a campground. Carly and I spent our nights on mattresses inside one of his little white circus tents near a rushing stream, complete with an extension cord and floor lamp. 

If you want to share a little piece of this paradise, Avery is starting a business guiding slow bike tours through southern France. We visited several of the stops that will be a part of the tour...and might I tempt you? At one ancient monastery we visited a fifty-year old olive orchard and received a crash course in the making of olive oil, finishing up by tasting various oils and learning to distinguish their quality (a spicy aftertaste in your throat is good!). At the next stop we met Vincent, a bear of a man in love with his bees and a self-proclaimed honey thief. His methods of bee keeping are so simple it's profound: keep the bees happy. We wandered amongst the homemade boxes of hives with zero protection in complete safety, mindful to quickly cross the 'shipping lanes' as the worker bees zoomed in from the mountainsides. On one box he popped open the lid and we jumped back in alarm - but he laughed, gesturing inside. "Look," he said, "my girls are so kind. They even put it in jars for us!" After that delectable sampling, we strolled the beach and finished the evening at a French winery run by Englishmen, listening to the beats of a live band while eating our picnic dinner and dancing into the sunset.

There is so much to Mosset that I don't have room to speak of: the natural pond that is actually a filtered swimming pool, the old hotel over the hot springs, the dogs waiting outside the library for their owners...the unpredictable hours of the stores and the volumes that could be written about the agriculture and wild plants. But you'll just have to craft your own adventure and discover them yourself. Why not? As the French would say: profité! Go for it, follow your dreams, live vibrantly...profité!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sarly goes to Switzerland

I'm on a Swiss train eating Swiss chocolate and admiring Swiss Alps. We are now departing this land of paradox: independent yet structured, wild yet manicured, fierce yet serene. The people, the culture, the government, the infrastructure - all of it binds my fascination to these mountains. Highways are stuck to the side of mountains as if with super glue; mere ledges against sheer rock faces. Cable cars float up at impossible angles, ferrying tourists (and cows) to niche villages built into alpine slopes. Helicopters double as supply wagons and construction vehicles while trains glide between every city with impossible punctuality. I could go on and on about this fascinating culture where apprenticeships abound and managers are home-grown from the ranks of everyday workers, where you are fined 15% of your annual income for a speeding ticket but are paid 80% of your income in unemployment benefits if you quit your job. Rarely is the system abused, though; the Swiss just work. Hard.

Our tour began in Basel, north of the Alps against the Rhine where it cuts between Germany and Switzerland. David, an old family friend from the States and our next host, met us at the train station and took us to his trim apartment near Barfussaplatz. Roughly translated, Barfussaplatz means "barefoot plaza," and is named after the barefoot monks that once resided in the nearby Münster Cathedral, now transformed into a Reformed church. David took us through old town, with its bright wooden shutters and peaked roofs, and along the Rhine, where we saw the heads of swimmers bobbing alongside tethered  clothing bags as they floated down the swift moving, mineral-clouded waters. If we'd had an extra day, we would have taken the popular plunge ourselves, but as it was, the Alps ended up being wet enough to suffice.

On Monday we raced to the Basel train station and snagged the morning ride to Thun: a small city in the Alps nestled at the end of a long lake named Thunersee (original, I know). But there was a lot to see on Thunersee, so we boarded a steamboat with a real paddle wheel and zigzagged across the lake on our way to Interlaken (literally, between the lakes). For all you boaters out there: my admiration for the Swiss began on this ride as I watched the captain dock the boat by jiggling and reversing the paddle wheels until the whole steamer feathered up beside her pilings.

The clouds were low and obscured the mountain peaks, but the lake shores were clear and we could easily see toy villages nestled on green slopes with toy trains running between them. It was all real, of course, but the sheer size of the surrounding terrain reduced everything to toy-sized caricatures. Once we disembarked in Interlaken, the rain chased us around town as we searched for a bowl of hot soup. If München was full of Turks, Interlaken is full of Indians. Hunger got the best of us and we settled for spicy curry at the Taj Majal, a restaurant decorated with colored Christmas lights and cheap posters. Later, our hotel manager (an Englishman and my informant of Swiss culture) explained that many of the most famous Bollywood films are made in Switzerland, so much so that the Indians rival the Chinese as the number one spenders in Switzerland.

We'd planned on spending a single night at the Mittaghorn hotel in Gimmelwald, a nose-bleed of a village with seventy people that requires a train, a bus, and a cable car to reach. But the quaint scene and our beautifully rustic room stole our hearts and we hastily booked a second night, despite the foggy weather and obscured views. I don't know how to begin describing our hiking exploits. Go watch Heidi and combine it with Lord of the Rings, and you might get the idea. Carly asked, as we tucked into our twin beds with cows bells ringing in the street below us, how I was going to sum up our eight-hour day in the mountains. "Some descriptions, I guess," I said. Ha! Such descriptions have taken books. But...

The near-vertical pastures were alive with wild flowers; small heads of yellow, white, purple, blue, and red  hung heavy with mist and dripped into the tangle of grass beneath. Brooks tumbled down every crease of the earth's mantle; waterfalls launched off every step and dropped from impossible heights. Some streams fell so far that they turned completely to mist before reforming on the rocks below. The cloud cover forced us to notice the details instead of the overwhelming panoramic views seen on postcards, but looking across the valleys we lost all perspective anyway and felt almost a giddy sense of vertigo.  The mists added an ominous air as they swirled to reveal strange new rock faces and jutting, stern shoulders. Carly reviewed several pictures and huffed. "These pictures just look like dumb rocks. There is just no way to capture the perspective." And it's true. You really have to be there to understand.

We followed a river up to its source: a large canyon with no fewer than a dozen waterfalls and slabs of glacial snow. Years of melted avalanches had left piles of black rock behind, so the whole scene felt mysterious and prehistoric. Continuing upwards, we heard the deep tones of cow bells long before we caught up to them in the mist: the locals, taking their small herds up to the high pastures for the summer. Consequently, the trail was slippery, muddy, and loaded with liquified grass. By the time we cleared the tree line and zig-zagged up an endless slope, we were more than ready for the hot meal that awaited us at Rotstokhütte, a solitary cabin manned by a solitary cook. Best. Food. Ever.

We ate dinner back in our village, hiking down trails so steep that at times we seemed to be headed for a precipice. In 'downtown' Gimmelwald (a hundred meters down mountain from our hotel) we snuggled into a basement restaurant and enjoyed food service from Englishmen that reminded us of hobbits. On the way home, we mutually decided that four nights in Switzerland was not nearly enough.

I must come back here. For the sake of my soul.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sarly goes to Gupf

To be honest, Switzerland jumped upon us before I wrote about our time in Gupf, and although we left nearly a week ago, I don't want to leave out its crucial role in our trip. Frankly, we were so busy relaxing and enjoying the family time we had with Mark and Maria Walker that I neglected my writing! Gupf, a tiny village in the southwestern corner of Germany, is surrounded by rolling farmlands and vineyards. Wheat, barley, rye, strawberries, asparagus, canola, grapes...the variety is endless. The town itself is barely two blocks, but even then, half the buildings are barns for milk cows and yards with chickens. Every morning we woke to the sound of lowing cattle; every evening we went to sleep with the same lullaby in our ears. The Walker's house was built as a barn over a hundred years ago, and the burly, thick stone walls still add their character to the cozy dwelling.

Our time here cannot be understood without first explaining our hosts. Mark is an American who grew up in Germany while his father smuggled bibles into communist Europe. Maria is all German, the daughter of a seminary professor (slash renaissance man) - and she carries his insatiable love of learning onward. I don't think my mind can hold all the things I learned while working at her side. Several days in a row, we pulled up stinging nettles from the property - tall, leafy stalks that burn like acid when you touch them. Even with rubber gloves to my elbows, I was hit - and Maria turned to pluck a ribbed leaf from a plant in the grass. "Ribwort," she said. "Mash and rub until the juice is in your skin." The remedy gave instant relief. I memorized the plant and by the end of the day, my shins and elbows were stained with dirty-looking ribwort juice. Maria, with boundless energy and endless stories, also taught me how to wield a scythe as tall as a man, manage a pasture, make lemon-balm spearmint tea and cook white asparagus. We ate our dinners on solid wooden discs with cheese and bread as ever-present condiments, family-style.

Mark has a burning passion to do Gods work here on earth, and has a lifetime calling of collecting, packing, and driving clothing and other necessities to the poor in Romania. When our activities slowed down enough for us to quiet ourselves, Mark would tell us in his soft, wise manner stories of smuggling bibles before the wall came down, of evading communist authorities, of God-ordained meetings and miraculous provision. I could sit at his feet for hours. He asked Maria if she would make dumpf noodlen (phonetic spelling) for us, and after the dinner of sweet rolls caramelized in sweet milk and covered with rich vanilla sauce, he told us that that particular meal would keep their marriage strong for a lifetime. The Walkers invited us into their life with such open arms I felt as if I could have been their daughter. Besides uprooting nasty nettles, I helped feed horses, muck poop, and carry items during shopping trips. To my delight, the grocery proudly displayed its own, in-house brewery!

We saw the sights too, of course - Maria was extremely gracious about that. Several nights we were treated to a dip in the public pool (more like a mini-waterpark) where men are required to wear speedo-like boy shorts for sanitary purposes. We visited the ruins of Rötteln castle (dating back to 1259), and Maria told us the story of a siege long ago, showing us the high tower window through which a messenger and his faithful horse jumped to fetch help from a neighboring town. The horse died, sparing the rider, and the castle was saved. We also visited the nearby Roman ruins (which were recently discovered and are still being unearthed) and the amphitheater, temple, and coliseum stood as eery monuments in the middle of a modern town.

Our last day in Gupf perfectly summed up our visit. Maria hosted a celebration for two of their girls' summer birthdays, and the scene was so perfect it nearly burst my heart. A tree shaded a picnic table serving coffee and cream, adults chatting across its planks. A hammock-seat spun energetic children in wild circles like a silk cocoon hung from a thread. A baby played with the family dog on a quilt laid out at the foot of the table, sharing a small piece of bread with her inquisitive friend. Sunlight streamed across the wooden steps as guests came out carrying sweet breads, melons, fruit dip, and ice cream. We were introduced to a shepherdess and learned that sheep are wise, in their own way. It didn't matter that we didn't speak the language - love and celebration are universal words to the soul.

Gupf was the perfect mid-trip relaxation we needed. The Walkers and their quaint town rejuvenated us and sent us off to Switzerland with overflowing hearts and full minds, ready to lose the extra pounds we'd gained at Maria's table on the daunting slopes of the Alps.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sarly goes to München

When we first arrived in München (Munich) I thought we may have made a mistake and taken the train to Istanbul. Veiled women in full burkas floated amongst the tailored Germans like regal mysteries, the rare swish of their hems occasionally revealing platform shoes and tight, patterned pants. Dark-eyed black-haired men clustered in cafés and greeted each other on the streets, wearing nice clothes and driving even nicer cars. München is a modern city and a place of business, and initially we were rather put off by the number of sex shops and office buildings. But the benefit to landing in 'little Turkey' was finding halal food (the Islamic equivalent to kosher) and we ordered up some fantastic salads from Istanbul Buffet. Since we aren't actually planning a trip to Turkey, I figured cheating on the German palate with a Turkish one was acceptable in the interest of cultural diversity.

The funny thing about München is that the greatest threat to pedestrians are the hundreds of bicyclists zooming alongside the streets. Cars are easy to avoid, since everyone obeys the lights, but the bicyclists have their own system entirely. In some places they have their own sidewalk alongside the road, but since it isn't really marked when we share sidewalks and when it is a bike-only lane, we often heard the tiny trill of a bell moments before a blur of spokes and handlebars shaved the sleeves off our elbows. Once we figured out how to stay out of the death lanes, we navigated our way to the Arthotel Munich and checked in behind an Asian family and an American couple.

Our hotel room was the price of a hostel and we had booked it hoping to find other travelers to mix things up a bit. Yet despite a fantastic room (complete with mood lighting and a free bottle of wine), ours was the only finished room on the floor. Turkish workers painted hand railings in our stairwell, installed windows next door, and stacked headboards in the hall during our stay. But the construction put me right at ease as it took all the hoity-toity out of our upscale room, giving it an apologetic, welcoming air. Still; finding friendly neighbors was now out of the question.

Our initial plans for the next morning were to take a twelve-hour bus tour of the Romantic Road for castle-spotting, but they were thwarted by full seats and outlandish ticket prices. We tried to come up with plan B before pillow time, but discussion was frustrated by the fact that Carly's a morning lark and her brain is off by eleven whether she's asleep or not. Fortunately, by the time I rolled out of bed the following morning (I'm a night owl and my brain isn't up until nine) Carly had it all figured out (can I say how much I love traveling with her?) and we set off on a pilgrimage to Andechs Monastery near Herrsching. Lo and behold, at the beginning of our hour-long trek up the large hill, we joined up with two fellow backpackers: Danny and Casey, a brother and sister from Michigan finishing up a two week sprint through Europe.

After viewing an ornate, frescoed, and almost gaudy sanctuary, the four of us headed to the cafe and biergarten (beer garden) for refreshment. The monastery is known for brewing their own beer, and after a plate of raw radishes and a liter (or two) of the latest brew, we had become solid friends with our new companions. I even stopped talking in my imitation German accent! Of course, we also ate pretzels and sausages, and Danny endeared himself to me when he replied "It is the wurst" to my query of how he liked his sausage. Needless to say, we found abundant opportunities throughout the rest of the day to practice our punches. (!)

The four of us returned to München and strolled the English gardens, famous for public bathing in the nude along the shores of its picturesque, carefully engineered streams. Fortunately, the water was a bit cold for such heathen activities, but we did get to see Germans in wetsuits literally surfing a tumultuous section of water. We hardly covered half of the gardens in an hour: I'd never seen a city park so large and so ornate, so clean and so spacious. In one field hundreds picnicked while playing badminton, soccer, and frisbee; others just lounged about with a hookah or a joint nearby. The sun dropped below the horizon, setting fire to the surrounding hills and cooling the sweeping tresses of the willows - and I thought if I had a park like this, I would really love living in the city.

My stomach led us to a shack under some giant trees for dinner, and each of us ordered some unknown item from the menu along with, of course, a good half liter of beer. My item ended up being a hoagie roll with three naked sausages inside - no sauce, no toppings. And it tasted amazing. We settled into the hammocks slung up for customers to chow down and somehow picked up Wolfgang, a young guy with limited English that wouldn't tell us his real name at first because Wolfgang doesn't sound like Wolfgang when said in German. We called him Carl instead. Several ice breakers later, during which we determined Carly needed to marry a finch and I a horse (don't ask), we set ourselves back on the crowded path to find München's famous Marianplatz, an historic square with an ornate city hall. At some point I admitted I really wanted to call the citizens munchkins; but they don't really fit the profile.

Danny and Casey made our München trip incredibly fun and extremely worthwhile: we were sad to bid them good-bye the next morning as we headed for Gupf, Germany, only twenty minutes from Basel, Switzerland. The rolling plains have turned into slightly steeper hills, and the large, covered platforms at train stops into quiet, open air boardwalks. The style is changing - less snap and more knapp. The clothes are looser, the hair is plainer, and the faces kinder, softer, lighter. Gupf is a tiny village tucked into the farmlands of Baden-Wurttemburg; and waiting for us in their ancient farmhouse are our next hosts, Mark and Maria, full of Godly wisdom gleaned from years spent smuggling bibles into countries behind the Iron Curtain.

Sarly goes to Praha

Carly and I wore skirts and sandals to church today, and with no time to change before hauling our packs to the train station, we made quite a picture of Sunday-school backpacking. But what a sweet fellowship of believers! Members from at least 5 continents: Dubai, Swaziland, Fiji, Poland, Holland, Ohio, Brazil, Ghana, east Asia - and those are just the few I met.

It's been a few days because the only time I have for blogging is during our beautiful train rides...and even then, I am distracted by the passing rivers, villages, fields, villas, and often random eccentricities of the countryside. It's late spring and everything is green and blooming. Poppies and periwinkles dot the track side, interspersed by bursts of small white or yellow flowers. We're leaving the Czech Republic on our way back to Germany, this time to stay a few nights at the Arthotel in München (Munich) while we tour German castles and partake of more sauerkraut and beer (I can't wait for Italy).

Praha (Prague) is beautiful in a powerful way. Even though we are only a week into our trip, I think my number one recommendation for all you readers is that you plan a trip to this historic city, and soon. It is the only major city in Europe to escape the bombings, and so the old twelfth-century buildings from the Holy Roman empire still exist, restored and maintained. A giant monument in Old Town Square memorializes Jon Hus, burned at the stake for challenging the Roman Catholic Church long before Luther or Calvin. Hus is such a presence in Praha's culture that the Communists used his words for their propaganda: "Truth will prevail" (they censored it from "God's truth"). The struggle between Protestants and Catholics is woven into the ornamental fibers of the city; a memorial for a Protestant martyr here, a statue for a Catholic martyr there. In one story, the invading Catholic Austrian lords were thrown from a window (an act so common it has its own name: defrestration), but landed in a pile of manure and survived. The Catholics erected a monument and called it a miracle; the Czechs laughed and noted the lords landed where they deserved.

Czech humor is an entire post of its own - but I'll indulge. A famous king mounted on an upside-down horse; statues missing a hand or foot (or both); giant plastic cars nailed to the side of a building and seeming to melt down the side. No one really has an interpretation of them except that the joke's on you. In place of the pre-cold war, twelve-ton concrete statue of Stalin stands a strange, upside-down pendulum that looks like a giant orange needle tracing back-and-forth across the city's skyline. Interpretation? Up to you. We saw so many bizarre things that we just started saying "Czech humor!" at anything that seemed quirky, odd, or indecipherable. Adventuring through the city became somewhat of a "Where's Waldo" experience: I doubt Germany will continue the game. :-)

What is missing?

Praha, compared to Germany, is a little dirtier and a lot less fashionable, but comfortably unrestricted and artistic! Germans don't dream of crossing the street if the little man is red, even if there isn't a car in sight. But in Praha, we were glad to find it is culturally acceptable to occasionally cross against the light. I have a passion for the wildness of third-world countries, but Praha seems to strike the perfect balance between development and earthy flair. Safe, efficient, and nice when you want nice, it also has holes in the cobblestone sidewalks, dirt in the corners, and Roma (gypsies) performing in the squares. Large dogs wear cagey muzzles; young lovers seem to particularly enjoy making out on escalators and in metro stations. Czech food consists of bread, meat, potatoes and beer...although I did eat half a duck with cabbage and white wine. Carly and I cheated last night and had some really delicious Italian...not that the sauerkraut and sausages aren't good, but I think we have enough weight in our packs without packing it on. We're having a great time getting to know each other: Carly points out that I speak English in weird and improper accents to the locals, and I've learned not wait too long between meals. 

I won't try to describe the beauty of the buildings: you will have to look at my pictures on Google+ for that. All I can say is that I felt as if I was walking through an ornate doll-house town, what with all the differently painted facades and sculpted roof ornaments. Czech it out, I'm telling you! You won't regret the thousand dollars you spend getting here. But do it soon: it won't be long before this European secret is discovered and as overrun with tourism as Venice and Paris. Prague is better.

Our hosts in this city were Kelly and Fred Prudek, and they MADE our trip. Fred took us on a tour of the city, and Kelly allowed me to come with her as she ministered to the women of Praha. Seeing the body of Christ work in front of my eyes was humbling; our group consisted of a Texas woman, a Czech lady, a Slovak girl about my age, and a Catholic nun all working together to bring hope to women in desperate situations. Oh, that God would give me the faith of these Godly women!! Kelly and Fred made our experience three-dimensional: I was impacted mentally, emotionally, and spiritually by their guidance through our visit to Praha.

Already the train is filling with Germans as we travel closer to München. We have little six-seater compartments, but the walls aren't thick enough to cut out the sound of the German boys drinking beer, carrying a boom box, and linking hand to shoulder as they  do a train on a train (haha). I will say this; I am glad to be seeing well-dressed and fashionable people again. Taken as a whole, Czechs aren't really my type. But that's a personal stereotype, I suppose. Hehe - if I'm looking forward to seeing Germans, I'm really looking forward to seeing Italians. :-) 

I miss you all. Sorta. Not really. Europe is awesome. :-P