I have a story to tell about the greatest meal of my entire life.
It happened this way…
On our way back from Switzerland, we drove through (and stopped in) Strasbourg, France. Aaron and I really enjoyed our visit last year when we came with McBryde, and we were glad to be able to revisit Strasbourg.
It happened to be Mom and Dad’s 30th anniversary, and we couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than by a visit to this neat Franco German town. Mom wanted to visit it because, well, France! And Dad was keen to see a place that figured prominently in the life of John Calvin. Calvin briefly preached here, and it was here that he met his wife Idelette. Ian enjoyed the incredible astronomical clock in the cathedral, and we all loved the winding alleyways, quaint shops, and wonderful mix of France and Germany that made the city unique.
We got some sweets in a shop near the cathedral, and asked the shopkeeper for his recommendation of a place to eat in La Petite France – the charming old town near the water. His recommendation was La Corde a Linge, and I will be forever indebted to him for sending us that way.
Side story: On the way, McBryde saw and purchased two large, pseudo-African masks from a shop for $10, and then had to carry them through the city the rest of the evening in a giant paper bag. The story of the masks continues in Ireland, and it makes for quite a tale! I will be sure to include it when I write a post on our time in Dublin.
We found the restaurant easily – it was crowded, but thankfully there was one last table, and we quickly sat down before it could succumb to the tide of dinner-goers who were heading towards it!
The menu was relatively simple, but absolutely sumptuous, with dishes like “roasted duck in pinot noir sauce,” or “gourmet meatballs in Alsatian mustard sauce.” I was charmed to see that each dish was named after a type of fabric (La Corde a Linge after all does mean “washing line” in French, so this makes sense). After some debate, I chose the “Flannel” – a simple spatzle (German noodle) with fresh tomato sauce and slivered Parmesan. That may sound underwhelming, but you did not taste it.
It. was. divine.
I don’t know how they did it, but every bite of that dish was amazing. The ingredients tasted like they had just come off of the vine, and everything was cooked to the perfect consistency. The sauce was sweet, yet savory, the noodles were perfectly buttery and lightly salted, and the cheese on top was the perfect mix of creamy and strong. Everyone else at the table was blown away by their dishes as well – the simplicity, and yet the flavorful taste! I tried a little of Dad’s ratatouille – incredible.
Normally we don’t indulge in coffee and dessert when we go out, but the food had put us into such culinary heaven that we couldn’t stop. When coffee came out, it was accompanied by beautiful, delicate pastry rolls – which the boys promptly pretended were fancy cigarettes (gosh, I can’t take them anywhere!).
We lingered long over the dinner and dessert, eking out the balmy french evening by drinking our coffees slowly, and savoring every pastry crumb.
Twilight was falling when we finally finished, and wandered back through the winding alleyways and across the canal to our car.
It was one of the most charming and lovely evenings of my life, and undoubtedly the most delicious meal I have ever eaten.
And coming from a self-professed foodie, that means a lot.
It is hard to believe that, as I sit down to write this post, it has been over a year and a half since we landed on this continent. In that time, we have traveled to some truly incredible places, but few can touch the beauty and the majesty of the Swiss Alps and the valley of Lauterbrunnen. Mom, Dad, McBryde, and Ian arrived in the end of June, and our first family trip was a return to the gorgeous valley that inspired Tolkien‘s magical elvish valley of Rivendell.
As we had the year before, we arrived in the late night, in the pouring rain, and awoke to a beautiful vista of mountains and ethereal clouds. We rented out the top suite of a chalet-style flat this time, and our landlord was the funniest little Swiss man: he had such a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and seemed about a hundred years old.
In between rain showers the next day, we explored the valley and town. There are some really lovely little shops in Lauterbrunnen: mostly tourist shops and outdoor stores, but even the grocery stores seem quaint when surrounded by the majestic Alps.
We had stopped for a drink at a very hipster coffee shop (seriously, the signs on the window were drawn on masking tape) when we saw two of our friends walking down the main street! Aaron and Shuey (Jessica, but she goes by her last name) were visiting the town the same weekend, and although they were planning on going on way more intense hikes than we were, they did join us for a meander to the beautiful Trummelbach falls, and an evening of pasta alfredo and board games afterwards.
The next day was Sunday, and we visited the beautiful town of Geneva and the church where John Calvin preached, but that is going to have to be a whole other blog post!
On Monday, the clouds finally broke to glorious sunshine, and we set off on a massive 9 mile hike up and down the mountains! We took the cable car from Lauterbrunnen up to a small stop nearer the top of the mountains, and then walked several miles (about an hour and a half steady going) through some really gorgeous trails to the town of Muerren.
On our way we saw lots of cows in the woods, the deep clang of their bells echoing off of the sides of the valley. Occasionally we would come out on overlooks, and the clouds would shift, giving us views of peaks that were slowly drawing level with us. A small train ran parallel to our path, and Mom and Dad ended up taking this back down the mountain after our stop in Muerren.
When we were about halfway through with this first portion of our hike, we came across a (seemingly) empty wooden chalet that had a lovely porch. We were hoping the owners would be there so we could purchase drinks, but they seemed nowhere in sight. However, there was a fridge full of cheese and yogurts (all freshly farm made) that were available for purchase. We left our money in the tin milk pail on top of the fridge, and continued on our way after a brief rest and several small tubs of yogurt.
We arrived in Muerren around 2, and most of the shops were closed until later in the day. Something I did not realize, but the Swiss seem to take a siesta in the afternoon for a few hours, rather like the Spanish. Thankfully the hotels were open, and we had a nice rest and drink on the porch of a beautiful ski lodge that overlooked the valley. The concierge was pleasant and friendly, and shared our love for all things Wes Anderson. In fact, he told us that the reason he was working there was because he loved the movie “Grand Budapest Hotel!”
Mom and Dad left us to head down the mountain via train around 3:30, and Ian, Aaron, McBryde and I loaded up on bread and cheese from the local grocery, and began the long climb down. I was amazed at how my endurance for the climb had increased since the year before. We had made the same trek last year, but I was completely exhausted by the time we arrived on the valley floor. This time however, I felt more than equal to the task; amazing what a year of European walking can do for you!
In one of the little towns on the way to Gimmelwald, we came across another “honest shop” where items were laid out on shelves, and patrons were expected to pay into a little box. I love this tradition, and have often wondered if it would work as well in the U.S. Several cats had followed us down the path a little ways, and when we stopped here, they sat near us and ate some cheese we gave them. We joked that they might be the owners in disguise, watching to make sure we paid.
The path grew steeper after Gimmelwald, and some of the sides had been roughly washed away by the recent rains. The weather was lovely though, and we sang and chatted as we clambered down, the sound of waterfalls constantly in the background.
We made our way to the valley floor just as evening was beginning to fall, and found a Swiss Franc in the bridge that McBryde had left there a year before. We put another in its place, then started our walk up the valley to our chalet in Lauterbrunnen.
It was a long walk back, and we were footsore and tired by the time we arrived at our temporary home, but the views, the clear air, the incredible scenery, and the quaint villages we passed through made it a trip well worth tired feet.
We left the next day for the long drive back to our home in Germany, tired but satisfied with a weekend well spent among the beautiful Swiss Alps.
“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Ah, Oxford. Even before I first visited this place two years ago, it had been very much alive in my mind. From the writings of Lewis and Tolkien, to the beautiful descriptions in Bridehead Revisited, the dreaming spires of Oxford had captured my imagination.
My first trip only lasted a day, but now Aaron and I had several at our disposal, and we intended to use them richly.
We arrived in the afternoon and checked into our rooms. As usual, Aaron’s excellent travel research skills had landed us in some neat digs: we would be staying in some empty rooms in Keble College that the college rented out. Not only that, but our breakfast would be taken in the great hall itself every morning!
We wasted no time, and as soon as we had dropped off our bags and freshened up, we went off to explore! The golden afternoon light glowed on the pale, cream-colored sandstone of the buildings, and the chatter of students and tourists was punctuated by the ever-present sound of bike-bells as students in academic robes flew past, peddling to classes or dinner.
In the last-minute rush of leaving, Aaron had accidentally left his tie at home. Though normally a tie is not required for a trip to Oxford, it would be this time: we were meeting an old friend for dinner in his college, and it was a jacket and tie affair. He ended up finding a nice garnet one in a men’s shop nearby, and now suitably attired, we left for Merton College, at the gates of which we met our friend.
Tyler could not have been a kinder host. A friend from college days, Tyler went to Harvard, but we met at several of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s summer conferences. Finding a common ground in our love of seersucker, paleo-conservatism, and horse races, the three of us had been eager to resume the acquaintance, and when we planned our trip to England, a stop to see Tyler in Oxford was a must.
Tyler led us into Merton – the college home of both JRR Tolkien and TS Eliot – so yes, I was in heaven. Merton is one of the three that vie for the title of oldest Oxford college, and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful.
We entered the great hall, where the students lined the tables in their academic regalia, and stood as the faculty occupying the high table entered and took their seats. One of the members of the high table offered grace in Latin, and we then sat down with much scraping of chairs that echoed throughout the high-ceilinged hall.
We had a lovely dinner, and went afterwards for a drink at the Turf Tavern, where many students and locals had gathered around small outdoor tables surrounded by old sandstone walls. We left Tyler afterwards with the promise of lunch the following day.
The next morning, after another delicious breakfast in Keble great hall, we went to the Museum of Natural History, and the Pitt Rivers museum, both conveniently across the street from Keble. We viewed dinosaur bones, foreign and ancient weapons, costumes, and artifacts, and then felt ourselves ready for some lunch.
We met up with Tyler again at Merton for a quick bite in the great hall, and then picked up some boat poles, and headed to the river Cherwell for an afternoon of punting!
The weather was lovely, and after we got the hang of the boat’s motion, we had a splendid time. There were plenty of other boats out, but the section of the river we were on was much less touristy, so it was mainly students. We talked about our schools, about England and America, and after a few glasses of wine, we found ourselves in a quiet stretch of river and sang a few songs for good measure.
The wildlife on the river was beautiful and abundant, and even though I did not get to see an otter (alas) I did see lots of beautiful ducks who seemed quite unconcerned with our intrusion, and came right up to our punt.
After our lovely afternoon on the river, Tyler left us to go to a college function, and we went out to the Eagle and Child for some good British fare and a toast to the Inklings, who used to meet and eat there. Afterwards we went across the street to the Lamb and Flag, where the Inklings had moved their meetings after the Eagle and Child got too crowded. We had a delicious pint of Belgian beer (ironically) and then headed back to Keble for the night.
The next day was our last full one in Oxford, and we concluded with a tour of some of the colleges, led by our intrepid guide, Tyler. We also met up with another friend from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute – Elizabeth Ridgeway. Elizabeth and I have kept up a little over the years, and she was the one who wrote the interview in Humane Pursuits that first got me interested in writing for the blog. It was so good to reconnect, and so healing to my soul to be able to chat with a woman like Elizabeth who valued intellectual discipline, creativity, beauty, and truth.
After a lovely lunch with Tyler and Elizabeth at Greens, we went to New College, and Magdalen, Tyler and Elizabeth providing us a free entrance to the colleges with their student cards. New College is not in fact new, but is actually one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, built in 1379. Most modern folk will recognize it from the iconic Draco-Malfoy-gets-turned-into-a-ferret-scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (see picture below).
The college greens were lovely – cool grass underfoot and glowing sandstone walls all around. We walked around the old college walls for a while, and talked until Elizabeth had to leave us.
Our next stop was Magdalen College – the beautiful place where C.S. Lewis taught from the 1920s to the 1950s. We strolled past the river and meadows on the beautiful Addison’s Walk, where a young and atheistic Lewis purportedly had quite a few theological debates with his Catholic friend, John Ronald Tolkien.
By the time we ended our walk, it was high time for tea (or time for High Tea?), so we had “the best scones in Oxford” in the Vaults & Garden Cafe right across from the Radcliffe Camera – and the scones were as delicious as the view!
It was a lovely way to end our magical time at Oxford. We only spent a few days in the “cloistral hush” of the city that grew Tolkien, Lewis, Eliot, and a host of other literary heroes, but it was enough to refresh our minds and souls, and bring fresh vigor and delight to our life at home.
Oxford is, and will always remain, one of my favorite places in the world.
After the stifling heat of London, and the long train ride to the North West of England, the sight of the green hills of the Lakes and Fells was just about the most soothing sight possible.
The second stage of our England trip had begun, and I was beyond ready for it. It was hard to believe that the hills I was looking at I had last seen with eleven-year-old eyes, when my family stayed here for five weeks so that my father could preach in the little Congregational Church in Keswick. That time was a truly life-changing one for me, and one that will shape my life as long as I live. Being back there was like walking into a familiar dream, and finding it even more vibrant and alive than you could have imagined.
We arrived in Penrith late on Monday, and Mr. and Mrs. Foot were there to pick us up. This precious couple has kept up a friendship started many years ago, and have visited us many times in the U.S. They even made it to our wedding! Seeing their faces at the station was like seeing the faces of family.
They took us to their lovely home in Keswick, and we had an excellent “tea” with them, talking about old times while enjoying lovely pasties, salads, and toast. Over the meal, Mr. Foot reminded me of a story from when we were in the lakes thirteen years ago. After a particularly good dinner by Mrs. Foot, Zan (about thirteen at the time) said that he wished we had an older brother who could marry the Foot’s daughter in order to inherit Mrs. Foot’s recipes. Ian, (five years old) piped up: “No! I must marry Katherine!”
We shared lots of stories (and tea and pudding) together during dinner, and looked forward with delight to the next few days.
The next morning, after breakfast (and wonderful Bible-reading led by Mr. Foot), we set off to explore. The weather was somewhat rainy, but we were blessed to have a mostly sunny morning.
We stopped first in the lovely Rannadale valley, which is famous for its beautiful carpet of bluebells. Unfortunately we were too late for the bluebells, but the sheep, foxgloves, creek, fells, and general scenery were more than worth the stop.
The rain clouds started moving in, so we hopped in the car and headed to Kirkstile – a little pub nestled in the fells near Loweswater, and had a lovely lunch in an establishment that was built before our country was founded.
Mrs. Foot had heard about the 1000 year old viking cross at a nearby church in Gosforth, so we headed there to check it out after lunch. The cross itself was standing beautifully tall and ancient among gravestones larger than any I had ever seen. The cross was carved with a mix of pagan and Christian symbols, still barely visible on the worn stone.
Inside the dimly lit church were two massive carved stones. I had never seen anything like them before, so I was interested to read that they were called “hogbacks” – a sculpture form that was used in the 10th-12th centuries. They were beautifully carved with mythological scenes, and intricate patterns.
We stopped for a coffee as the rain increased, and enjoyed it in a lovely little inn – the fire crackling pleasantly and the drinks absolutely delicious. While we were there, we had an interesting lesson in the Cumbrian dialect, as Mr. Foot pointed out the word “sneck” in one of the ales being sold (see the explanation in the picture below).
We returned for a late tea/early supper, and by then the sky had cleared and the air was crisp and cool. We walked down to the water, and then back up through the village, passing the church where the relationship between South Carolina and Keswick started about fifteen years ago.
The next morning, the Foots took us down to Lingholm Estate – a farm right on the water where Beatrix Potter stayed often as a young person. Unlike so many of the other Beatrix Potter sights, it has not yet been entirely swamped by tourists. Beatrix Potter was one of my favorite authors as a child, and her connection to the Lake District, as well as my interest in watercolor and illustration has increased my interest in her as I’ve grown older.
Lingholm Estate has a lovely cafe where we sat in the sunshine and sipped tea and coffee, gift shop, and a whole garden made like Mr. MacGregor’s in “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”!
After our pleasant stop at the farm, we drove among the fells, stopping occasionally to get out and walk around down some of the beautiful paths. Near a farm where the “Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle” (another Potter) takes place, we saw a shepherd marking his flock and administering medicine. We stopped and watched him for a little while: it was amazing seeing him work so quickly and efficiently.
After we returned to Keswick, the Foots stayed at their house to prepare for the arrival of their son and two granddaughters, and Aaron and I went into town for a stroll, a cornish pasty, and some amazing gelato. We ended our afternoon with a row around the lake – the sunshine and cool breeze making it a perfect afternoon for an excursion on the water.
We left the next morning for Oxford, and the third and final stage of our time in England. The kind Foots took us to the train station and saw us off. As the fells and lakes sped by, I reflected on our time there, grateful to have made new memories in a place that had left such an impression on me as a child.
We have been in Germany for a year and a half, and last week was our first trip to England; frankly, I am impressed we stayed away so long! Despite the fact that we had both been there before (though never together) it topped our list of “places to go” while in Germany.
It was definitely the trip I was most excited about, and it did not disappoint! We had three different locations to visit while on the lovely isle, so I decided to write a post on each one. They were packed full of adventure, quintessential English-ness, and more fish and chips than you could shake a fork at!
We flew Ryan Air, so our biggest travel struggle was packing for three very different places (and weathers!) in a single carry-on bag. We did this by using “squishy” bags, and lots of layers (we also wore our coats, which may have been a mistake – it was almost 90 degrees in London!).
Our flight arrived dreadfully early on Sunday morning, but at least we had a full day to use for sight-seeing! Our time in the old city was the shortest, because we had both visited it already, and seen many of the chief wonders of the place.
One of my favorite things about the stay in London was our hotel, the Arosfa. The tiny little hotel, tucked away near the University of London, was formerly the home of Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. When Aaron told me he had found and booked the hotel, I definitely nerded out big time. One of my favorite college courses was Victorian Lit., in which we had studied Millais and the other members of the PRB. We also touched on them in Art History, so I knew the group from both its literary and artistic side. Every moment spent sitting in the little purple living room was magical – I could just feel the inspiration from those long-dead artists surrounding me.
The rooms are small and modern (though ample for our needs) but the downstairs area has all the feel of an old Victorian-style house. The sitting room in particular was fun: a royal purple paint on the walls and lots of fun paintings hanging in ornate frames. There is even a small private bar for guests! We felt very distinguished sipping gin and tonics in JE Millais’ living room after a long day of exploration.
Our first stop, after dropping our bags at the Arosfa, was the National Portrait Gallery. Attached to the National Gallery off of Trafalgar Square, the Portrait Gallery is a massive collection of portraits (mostly) from the history of Britain. In it are such famous pieces as the original Shakespeare, the Arnolfini (Wedding) Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I, and many others. A few hours would be enough to get you all the way through the museum, but it is so full of priceless works of art that you could easily spend a day there.
Outside of the gallery we saw something that we had not noticed on previous trips: a bronze cast of the very same statue that stands on the steps of the State House in Columbia, SC! It was like meeting an old friend.
We took lunch right across the street in the cafe in the vaults of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. It was definitely an interesting setting, but the food was inexpensive and delicious! I had a big bowl of warm soup – in my view one of England’s best culinary successes is their excellent soup.
The next day we visited the British Museum after breakfast, and marveled at the beautiful Elgin Marbles, and the ancient Greek, Persian, and Egyptian ruins. It, like the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, had free admission! They have a five pound suggested donation, but it hands-down beats the expensive Parisian museum prices! (Rule Britannia!)
My favorite display was the Sutton Hoo ship burial – one of the most important early medieval excavations. I find it amazing to view the physical artifacts that have been illustrations in so many of my history books.
We were able to do a fair amount of walking about London during our 36-hour tour of London, and it was delightful to stumble unexpectedly on places we had heard of in books or seen in movies, like the London Horse Guards Parade Grounds.
All in all, though short, our time spent in London was lovely. It is a large, and somewhat spread-out city, so planning ahead of time is essential. The nice thing is, there are wonderful spots in almost every area of the city! So wherever you are, you’re bound to be near some amazing artifact of national and historical importance.
Just avoid Camden Town… but that’s a story for another day. 😉
The last week has been just about as rainy as rainy can be here in ole Deutschland, but the week before was sublimely beautiful, so I guess I can’t complain too much.
Last Sunday I spent one of the most enjoyable days of the last year hiking through the rocks and cliffs, gorges, and crevasses (new favorite word) of the area of Luxembourg known as “Little Switzerland” with some new friends.
Jessica and her husband Aaron (that only got confusing a few times – Jessica and I have to refer to our husbands as “My Aaron” and “Your Aaron”) put the hike together for Aaron, me, and another couple we’ve been able to get to know over the past few months.
The day was absolutely beautiful – 55 degrees and gorgeously sunny. We met at a little inn and restaurant in the village of Mullerthal called Heringer Millen. The place was a bakery as well, and when I saw the bread laid out to cool on the wooden tables in an empty side-room, I was sorely tempted to snag a baguette or two for the hike. Thankfully my morals held strong, and we left without any instance of larceny.
The hike was through several miles of hilly woodland, and underneath some of the most majestic rock faces I’ve ever seen. They reminded me of something straight out of Lord of the Rings, and could easily have been either the Walls of Moria or the creepy hills that led down to the Paths of the Dead.
The area actually did remind me of Switzerland – at least the area around the base of the alps where we spent a pleasant week last summer.
We stopped for a lunch break after about 45 minutes of hiking, and munched on our sandwiches as we looked out onto the tilled agricultural areas we could glimpse through the trees.
As we continued our hike, we passed families, groups of runners, couples speaking every language of Western Europe, and of course a few Americans as well. This area of Luxembourg (known as “Little Switzerland”) is only about an hour and 15 minutes from Buechel, 50 from Spangdahlem, and an hour and a half from Ramstein, (the huge base Air Force Base to the east) so I was not surprised to see quite a few Americans sporting military-style haircuts.
After several hours of hiking, lots of chatting, a fair amount of gorge-climbing, and several close encounters with slippery logs, we arrived at our destination: the town of Consdorf. The last few hundred yards of the path led us through fields and over a muddy path, which deposited us in the small, quiet town, the only visible inhabitant of which seemed to be a massive and lazy English bulldog. We soon noted a small pub however, and entering to seek something to satisfy our thirst, we saw several other hikers and (apparently) locals sitting around tables in the dark interior and watching a soccer (er… “football”) game and sipping on tall glasses of pale beer.
Matt, one of our fellow hiking friends and a beer expert, advised us on the different types offered at the establishment. Soon we were kicking our muddy boots back, sipping cool beers, and laughing and chatting as we talked about our jobs, our lives, our families back home, and everything else under the sun.
After a pleasant hour or so in Consdorf, we began our hike back to Mullerthal. The way back was accomplished with much more speed – we no longer felt the need to wander down every side path in search of a steep gorge. We made it back to the cars while the sun was still high in the sky, and headed back to Germany for dinner together before starting the week.
As (my) Aaron said: “We have to remember this in the future! It’s an inexpensive trip with massive payback in terms of scenery.” As usual, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Snow’s all right on a fine morning, but I like to be in bed when it’s falling. —Sam Gamgee
Sam Gamgee’s words resonated with me as I looked out over the six inches of snow I had to clear from the driveway. It was morning, but only barely light underneath a German sky that promised more snow to come. I clutched my coffee mug with chilled fingers, and inhaled the warm fragrance—steeling myself for the job ahead. Even though it created a daunting morning task, I could not deny the snow was lovely. It had transformed the stark German countryside into a landscape as soft as a lullaby. The sharp edges of the slate mine down in the valley were covered with a blanket of white, and the bare branches of the trees were shelves, each holding a dusting of powdery flakes.
As beautiful as the snow was, it could not be allowed to stay in my driveway. Just that morning I had rushed out into the snow to help my husband get the car out of a drift in the drive so he could get to work. We had cleared just enough to get his car out, and mine still needed to be released from its wintry captivity.
Across the street I saw the bowed back of our neighbor, Herr Schroeder, and heard the scrape, scrape, of his shovel. I had scarcely ever talked with him in our year of living here—a cheerful nod was the limit of most of our interactions, a greeting that fortunately transcended language barriers. Even so, as my husband and I wrestled with the car in the darkness of that morning, he had appeared out of the snow to lend a hand, and afterward showed me how to sprinkle salt on the drive to gain traction for the cars and melt the ice our shovels had left behind. Now he stopped for a moment to exchange a cheery word with another neighbor, similarly engaged in scraping down their portion of the sidewalk.
Here in Germany, every person has a responsibility to shovel off the section of sidewalk in front of their house, a distribution of labor that keeps the sidewalks of the entire village clear. Like most forms of personal responsibility in Germany, it seems to be something that the Germans do not just because it is the law, but because they feel it is their duty, perhaps even a way that they can care for their neighbors. This principle largely guides life here: from the rules regulating recycling to those rules (which do exist) regulating the autobahn. The Germans really seem to understand that hackneyed saying of Donne’s: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent…”
We were warned when we first arrived that Germans are strict rule followers, and they expected others to follow those rules as well. If you did not obey the rules, you could expect a German, whether a neighbor or a stranger, to shortly arrive on your doorstep, tell you what you were doing wrong, and expect you to fix it post-haste. For example, a friend who has lived here for several years told me that she asked her German neighbor once if she could put her bulk trash out in front of the house early, because they would be leaving for vacation on the collection date. The neighbor frowned, and replied that she supposed so, but was afraid the gypsies might take the trash. My friend shrugged: “They can have it, and welcome!” Her neighbor looked aghast. “No they cannot!” She said. “They don’t pay taxes!”
This strict observation of the rules made me nervous at first. In a society governed by such standards, how would a stranger survive? The answer was obvious I suppose, but did not come to me fully until that day as I watched the snow gently falling in my village; no man is an island, and when you join a village, the village also joins you regardless of whether they chose you or not. The people here were as ready to welcome my husband and me as they were to welcome the family of refugees that arrived two summers ago. The thought of the refugees always reminds me of one of the most poignantly beautiful things I’ve ever seen. During our last village festival, I remember watching one of the girls from the family of refugees dancing gleefully with a German girl about her own age. The two twirled to the music of the band in the middle of the community hall, golden and ebony hair flying, shrieking with laughter and completely unaware that they were the perfect picture of a community coming together to love, share, and take care of insiders who had all at some point been outsiders.
Putting down my cup of coffee, I zipped on my heavy winter coat and slipped into my boots, hefting the huge snow shovel over my shoulder and trooping out into the cold to clear away the snow. Thirty minutes later I was working on salting down the last bit of the sidewalk. My arms burned from the exercise, my face was cold, and the hair peeking out beneath my hood was windblown. I looked up during a moment of rest to see the neighbors for yards down the street doing as I was: the scraping of snow shovels interspersed with a shared word or a laugh, while the shrieks of delight coming from a group of children pelting each other with snow punctuated the sounds made by the adults. With a smile I noticed the black hair of one of the refugee children and the fair skin of a village child as they played together in the snow, bonding in the cold in their own way, while the adults did the same through their common work.
As I was spreading the salt, my hands bare because I did not have any work gloves, I heard a loud “Hallo” from the next yard. My neighbor, Joanna, appeared with a bundle of pink rubber gloves. “For your hands mit the salz,” she said in her usual mix of German and English. I was touched by the kind act, and went back to the cold, hard, but incredibly rewarding work with renewed vigor, know that in a small way I was caring for the village that had, tacitly perhaps but nevertheless truly, welcomed me into its heart. I had been allowed to take up residence here: an outsider who now felt on the inside. As I walked back inside to fix myself a fresh cup of coffee, I smiled at the sound of the dull rasp of the shovels echoing through the village—the sound of others in my home participating in the same communal duty that bonded us all together on a snowy day in Germany.
The last few months have been full. Full of fun travels, visits from friends and family, cold, snow, sunshine, work, and rest. Sadly, they’ve not been terribly full of updating this blog. When I’ve been writing, I’ve been putting my time into sending works off for Stripes Europe, Humane Pursuits, and an interview for Ivy&Branch.
But now I am putting fingers to keys to write about our wonderful trip to Athens, the race we ran, and the incredible friends we spent time with.
It was my birthday in November when we left for a weekend in Athens. It was the first of my birthdays that Aaron and I’d spent together in many years, and boy did we make up for lost time! Our ostensible reason for traveling to Athens was the Marathon that Aaron was going to run, and the 10k I was training for. However, I was just excited about an excuse to see the historical city with my own eyes.
We met up with so many good friends in the airport – some pushing strollers, others already wearing their racing shoes, all with nervous and excited smiles. We all piled aboard the plane and lifted off, leaving Northern Europe and headed south to a warmer clime.
We arrived after nightfall, so Athens was just a bunch of soft lights as we taxied from the airport into the city. Aaron and I were sharing an AirBnB with Mel (a friend we’d bonded with over a shared love of South Carolina and strange Russian films) and the McNaughtons – a family of four who had been some of the first to welcome us here, and involve us in their faith community.
The McNaughtons stayed home that first night – their one and three-year-old littles ready for bed after their travels. Mel, Aaron and I headed out into the dusk to meet up with some friends at a small restaurant near the acropolis. The mass of ruins gleamed with light on the hilltop, and lit our way with a mystic glow as we threaded our way through the graffiti-laden ruins of Byzantine churches, statuary, and old stone houses.
That was a magical meal – eating souvlaki and olives, drinking sangria while small cats zipped beneath the table looking for scraps, friends laughing beneath the stars, and the whole dinner backlit by the gleaming acropolis.
The next day the McNaughtons joined the three of us for an expedition to the acropolis and Mars Hill. Aaron was our guide and historian, and explained many of the marvels hidden in the seemingly mundane pieces of statuary that littered the olive-shadowed field below the temple of Hephaestus. As he pointed out the area where Paul had preached to the Athenians in Acts, MJ McNaughton and I exchanged a quick look of giddy exultation: how incredible was it to be standing on the same dusty patch of ground that once held up the sandled feet of the Apostle Paul?
Climbing the hill of the acropolis was a near-mythic experience for me. Ever since I had picked up D’aulaires Book of Greek Myths at age 7, I had dreamed of walking through the colonnades of the Temple of Athena, and now I was doing it.
The rest of that day was spent walking around Athens before we headed down to the port to sign in to the race to get our t-shirts and race numbers. I was already getting nervous and excited about the race on the following day. I had only run the 6.2 miles all the way through once, and that had been some months before. However, I was fairly certain that I had trained enough to at least give a good account of myself on the morrow.
The marathoners were more nervous – and for good reason! I could not imagine running the equivalent of my own race, and then going for 20 more miles!
We woke early on the following day, and the marathoners left for the buses that would take them to the outskirts of the city. I joined two of the other gals running the 10k, and we lined up for the start. I’d been warned not to let the excitement of the race force me into running too fast too soon, but it was more difficult than I had imagined to pace myself as the gun went off and hundreds of runners around me began to pick up speed!
The race was long (and somewhat painful), but extremely rewarding. After six miles, my feet pounding against the hard tarmac and my breath coming in gasps, I saw the gleaming marble Panathenaic stadium ahead of me, and my eyes filled with unexpected tears. I had signed up for the race back in the spring when living abroad had been such a hard and frightening trial, and every day was filled with anxiety. I was finishing it now, surrounded by friends, comfortable with myself, and resting in my Faith. As the marble arch soared above me and the finish line loomed ahead, I knew I was finishing an emotional, as well as a physical race.
We who had run the 10k joined the families of those in the marathon as we waited for the rest of our party to finish. It was several more hours before the marathoners loped tiredly into the stadium, faces exhausted but triumphant. We embraced them, made sure they drank their orange juice and ate their bananas, then took taxis back to our rooms for a wash and a rest before dinner.
That was another magical evening. We were more tired than we had been the first night, but it was the exhaustion of triumph, and the relaxation of success. Our restaurant had a glass wall facing the acropolis, and the warm glow of the soft stone seemed to smile down at us as we clinked glasses and toasted each other.
We parted ways that night to meet back up in the cold snows of Germany, but the trip will remain as clear in my memory as it was on that soft night in Athens.
Going small and local has been something I’ve been researching a lot recently. I am in the middle of Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons, which has strengthened and informed my love for the small, local, organic, and counter-consumerist.
Because of my recent foray into this subject, I thought it timely that my friend Maris messaged me about being featured on her new website Ivy&Branch – a website built with the vision of fostering, supporting, and connecting small businesses! I got to FaceTime Maris the other day and hear about her goals for the website, as well as giving input for her first article.
If you have a moment, do head to her website and look around, bookmark it for future reading, and check out her Facebook page for more updates. It’ll be a great venture, and I am so grateful to be in on the ground floor!
When we first learned we were moving to Germany, I began searching the internet for information on the area in which we would be living. Providentially, I came across the Instagram account and then blog of a lovely lady who had just moved to a nearby area of Germany. Looking at Courtney’s pictures and reading her blog posts were an excellent preparation and encouragement as I made the biggest move of my life.
I commented on a few of her pictures, ended up following her blog, and she gave me some great advice and kindly friended me on Facebook. Some months later, she approached me about writing for StripesEurope, where she has written quite a few articles.
I hope you enjoy seeing through my eyes during our wonderful night at the opera. If you’re a military spouse, make sure you take a peek at the other articles on this website – they can be so helpful! If you’re not a military spouse, but you’re curious about this crazy life we live, feel free to take a peek as well to learn more.
I have been so blessed by all the kind comments and words of encouragement I have received from friends and strangers on this blog. I hope you keep learning life along with me!