Deutschland, bitte.
 

The second leg of les Verts’ European adventure took them, and us, to France’s immediate eastern neighbor.  Every one of us – Nez, Riot, Nez’s sister, Joie, her husband, and their three children whose noms de web are, in order, Eurogrl, Kingskid, and Berryana – would now be a tourist.  And, before we rendezvous with Nez’s dad, who had flown to Germany directly from the States, we would be largely helpless with our feeble German, or the lack of it.  Yet, no one was really thinking about that minor inconvenience; we were all looking forward to exploring the German countryside as a sort of family reunion.  And, if it helps, our German adventure could be thought of as a castle tour with interesting train stories. 

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Things that happened on a German train.  Part 1.

Itinerary:

•  Paris Est - Saarbrüecken

        9:09-10:58
•  Saarbrüecken - Koblenz
        11:05-13:39
•  Koblenz - St. Goar
        14:51-15:19

 

16 May 2008.  Nez’s dad decided, rightly, that we all should use the German rail system as our main mode of transportation for this excursion for, among other things, the convenience and the majestic landscapes fluttering by outside our windows.  He had even booked all of the legs except the first from Paris to St. Goar, which was tasked to us newly minted Parisians.  With a little effort and not quite a lot of language issue we got tickets to as far as Koblenz; St. Goar was too small a destination to appear on the French’s railway computer. Thus, it fell upon Nez’s dad, whom we shall heretofore affectionately dub “the Kaiser,” to take care of that leg too.  Better yet, he would even meet us on the Koblenz platform so none of us would have to butcher yet another language.

Things went smoothly on the fast, but not quite bullet train fast, ICE train from Paris Est to Saarbrücken.  We had seven minutes to change trains at Saarbrücken, kids, bags, and all.  Luckily, the station was small and the trains were on opposite sides of the same platform.  Even then we had barely gotten on the next train when it started moving.  This was a local train with more locals and so Joie’s husband, also known as “the Language Chameleon,” started in on useful German phrases.  Our meager French was no longer of any value.  We all quickly agreed that to our untutored ears, German was kind of like strangely pronounced English.

The fun started when the conductor came by to check our tickets. Riot handed him the Paris-bought tickets and he started perusing them intently, burrowing his brows; clearly something was amiss.  The conductor shook his head as he flipped through the tickets and shook it some more as he went through the stack yet again.  We were not aware of any cultural differences in head expressions and his head shaking appeared to be more of a sign of disappointment than disapproval.  He heaved a long sigh before asking, we believed, whether we spoke German. “No” and “nein,” we all said in unison.  He tried valiantly to explain in German, very slow German, but nothing got through even though we all leaned in closely – international body language for “I’m really trying to understand.”  The conductor then gestured with his five fingers, which made us guess that he was saying that we had not paid for the children over the age of five. 

 
 
  Berryana making the most of the train trip with smiles between the seats and an assortment of games and toys.
  Knight-errant, Kingskid, on the ICE train from Paris to Saarbrüecken, working on yet another castle design.
 

At this point, Riot thought about pulling out some money to see how much more we would have to pay to rectify the problem.  But before he would have made a fool of himself, the conductor went and drafted a fellow passenger into serving as the interpreter.  We breathed a sigh of relief.  She started translating and her words came out in French.  French!  He thought we were French.  Normally, we, Nez and Riot, would have been delighted if someone thought we were French.  But here, in this situation, it was like going from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek; it was still a foreign tongue to us.

But all was not lost because surprisingly, we somehow managed to understand the gist of the issue.  Turned out, we had paid too much for our tickets; “plus cher,” said the translator.  With a group of seven, including three children, apparently we could have gotten a deeply discounted family ticket.  The conductor was frustrated that we had spent more than we should.  It was a disturbance in his universe that he must make us aware.  We thanked him and the lady both profusely for imparting upon us this knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  For at this point, we had already paid for and used these tickets and it was unlikely that we would travel from Paris to Koblenz again in the near future to make good use of this kernel of truth.  We did, however, appreciate his fortitude and sense of duty.

We laughed about it and chalked it up as one of those things you must leave your home to experience.  A little later we adults encountered another comical situation of ironic timing.  Kingskid had been watching old Indiana Jones movies on his portable DVD player to pass the time and was clearly intrigued by one peculiar, but constantly appearing, symbol used by the bad guys.  Like any curious child he asked his dad to explain what it was.  And, like a good father the Language Chameleon would have gladly done so except that it didn’t seem the best time nor place to be discussing with an inquisitive boy the swastika and its use by the Nazis on a German train in modern day Germany.  And so, this thirst for knowledge would have to be left unquenched for the time being.

 
 
Castle No. 1:  St. Goar.
 

16 May 2008.  When the train from Saarbrücken pulled into what should be the Koblenz station, the Language Chameleon unleashed a phrase he had lifted from the back of Rick Steves’s Germany & Austria 2006, “Wo ist Koblenz?”  Before the friendly passenger could say hier, the eagle-eyed Nez had already spotted her dad waiting on the platform in the thicket of the detraining crowd; she was exuding the joy of a preschooler being picked up at the end of the day.  This was a talented family indeed. 

Of this first reunion at the train station, the Kaiser wrote in his diary:

I met them at the train station in Koblenz on Friday.  I thought I would have trouble locating them when lots of people were busting out of the train.  Of course I didn’t need to worry, Nez spotted me within seconds. . . .  

[W]e were supposed to head on to St. Goar within 12 minutes but they looked hungry.  So, since it was their first time in Germany I thought McDonalds at the train station would help with the transition.  At lunch, I learned that Joies husband is a language chameleon.  He is learning German at an impressive rate.  Back at St. Goar, we settled in and walked around the scenic town and down by the Rhein.  For dinner, we had pizza at Heerstraße.  I wanted them to jump into German culture – thus, hamburgers followed by pizza.

 
 
  The pedestrian stretch of Heerstraße, essentially St. Goar’s only significant street.  Lurking high above in the back is the once-mighty Rheinsfel Castle.
  St. Goar’s train station. Towering behind it is the spire of the Collegiate Church and supposedly resting place of its namesake saint.
 

St. Goar is a small town that hugs the fast-flowing Rhine, named after a saint who lived here in the 7th century, and situated beneath the shell of once the mightiest castle along the river.  To us, it was a one-street introduction to small-town Germany, with a towering ruin of a castle nested high upon a hill. 

A few steps from the train station, or bahnhof, was the town’s church, one of two that occupied both ends of the main pedestrian thoroughfare.  This one, a Protestant church, was once a Catholic church and contained the tomb of the town’s namesake; the other, a Catholic church that is still Catholic.  A few more steps on the uneven cobblestone street was our hotel:  Hotel am Markt St. Goar located at Am Markt 1.  All of our three rooms looked out upon the picturesque Marktplatz below and cost a fraction of what they would in a major city.  The noticeable difference in prices continued to amaze us during our entire stay in these small towns.

  

The smile runs in the family:  Nez and the Kaiser about to have the first real German meal, the sombreo on the wall and the restaurant’s French name, Bon Appétit, notwithstanding.  

  “Willkommen in Deutschland,” said die Bratwurst and his friend, das Bier.
 
 
On bitte.

Please.  One delightful, little German word we heard often, or perhaps more accurately, one of the few words that we could actually catch, was bitte.  It didn’t take much to decipher that it means “please,” especially when we had the German-speaking Kaiser as a walking resource.  So, “Ein Bier, bitte” was attempted with success at every meal.  Easy enough, we thought.

Here you are.  But then at all meals, our cold glasses of beer (no one was actually serving beer in the elaborate steinkrug found in touristy shops, one of which called Bierstein Center Montag can be found on Heerstraße in St. Goar) were delivered with: “Bitte sehr, Ihr Bier.”  We had already learned that sehr means “very much” as in danke sehr, but this usage was kind of funny:  “Very much please, your beer?”  (Think that’s bad, here’s what Yahoo! Babelfish offers:  “Ask much, your beer.”)  Alas, the stereotype that the Germans aren’t a funny lot holds true in this instance.  It turns out bitte is also used when handing things over, as in “here you are.”

You’re welcome.  And there we were, thinking we had gotten bitte figured out, when we heard the indefatigable Kaiser respond, “bitte schön,” when someone thanked him with “danke schön.”  OK, we thought, we could figure this one out ourselves and it sort of made sense even with the literal translation:  “pretty thanks”; “pretty please.”  What a beautiful way to say “you’re welcome.”

Pardon?  But before we were done with Germany, the German language, or bitte, someone asked from behind the counter at a fast food restaurant when we tried to order:  “Wie bitte?”  Running through the list, we knew she wasn’t saying “please” (as that made no sense as a question), “here you are” (because we hadn’t succeeded in ordering anything yet), or “you’re welcome” (we hadn’t even said thank you).  Oh right, there must be another usage and indeed there was.  This time, it means something like “pardon?” or “sorry?”  In the course of a simple exchange, we saw (we swear) the beauty of that little word used in all of its incarnations.  A reconstruction:

     Us: Ein McRib, bitte.
     Her: Wie bitte?
     Us:

[Repeating the order slowly and pointing at the menu.]
     Her:

[Returning with the sandwich.] Bitte sehr, Ihr McRib.
     Us: Danke schön.
     Her: Bitte schön.

The BBC Languages web page (yes, there’s such a thing) confirms our language adventure and discoveries:  “You’ll hear and see the word bitte a lot in German.  It can have several meanings, depending on the situation, but it’s always polite.”  “Polite” is so British!  Bitte is more than just polite, it’s an enchanting linguistic sleight of hand.

 



  Les Verts and the Kaiser:  Just another family on a stroll along the swift Rhine.

  After the stroll, we snacked:  No one can turn down delicious eis, and this was to be our dinner for the night.

 
 
 

With it being the evening and this not being Paris, the itinerary was short and added to that we had an early day tomorrow.  We did manage to walk the entire length of the pedestrian street, Heerstraße, visit a cuckoo clock store (with the “largest cuckoo clock in the world” prominently perched over the entrance), have our first taste of bratwurst and bier, go for a short walk along the water, and relax over refreshing ice cream, or eis, in the by-then nearly-deserted street.  Sitting there, in front of the ice cream store and being there in St. Goar, it was as if time came to the proverbial screeching halt.  We, too, after the hustle and bustle of Paris felt the noticeable change in pace within us.  The castle looked at us longingly from high above but it would have to wait.  We were turning in early tonight (except Riot who delighted in discovering that his room had free Wi-Fi and proceeded to do some work into the night). 

 
The Kaiser’s girls:  At the end of the day,
on a giant swing, in a quaint playground
at the edge of town.
   
 
 
 
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Holla
 
 
 
 

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