Was it all a dream? Certainly the first night on the airplane was surreal. Our flight left Washington at 5 p.m. and after we were served dinner we only had about three hours before we arrived in Paris bright and early the next morning. I always find leaping across oceans like that to be a bit unnerving. On top of that I was sleeping bolt upright in an Economy-class seat, which is difficult enough for me at the best of times due to having a body build best approximating an orangutan. With my legs splayed and my arms wrapped around my chest all I could manage was a fitful doze, and every time I opened my eyes the bright, flickering screen of the television screen embedded in the seat in front of me was staring me in the face. Seeing perky, active people and exciting events unfold before your very eyes while you travel over 500 miles per hour high above the Atlantic Ocean is a miracle of modern technology, but definitely not what I wanted that night. After awakening for the umpteenth time and being thus visually assaulted, I had the fleeting thought of busting the thing, but right about that time we arrived in Paris and the lights came up in the airplane cabin, making it a moot point. For anyone traveling on a Boeing 777 who finds himself or herself in the same situation, I will note that there is a small, almost unnoticeable "on-off" switch on the lower left side of the screen. If you push it only once the television will die for a second, but then like Frankenstein's monster it will restore itself to life. Out of desperation I later found that pushing that button repeatedly like a rat in a Skinner Box will actually turn the screen off permanently, but it was much too late to retrieve a good night's sleep.
In Paris we went racing through Concourse C to get over to Concourse D in time to catch our plane to Hamburg. Dodging through the crowds and careening down and up escalators was actually rather invigorating, kind of like surfing except that instead of a surfboard we were dragging our carry-on luggage behind us. I would have enjoyed it thoroughly if we had not had to worry about making our next flight. We had an hour, which normally would have been plenty of time to walk the distance between the two gates, at least for folks who walk as much as we do. But in this case we had to pass through lines for both immigration control and security screening that took 10 to 15 minutes each, and that resulted in our having to hustle along as fast as we could.
In the end we did we did catch our flight and had the treat of watching the sun rise above the clouds as we flew to Hamburg. The rest of our luggage, not being able to run as fast as we did, did not make it to Hamburg with our plane, so we had to fuss with that a bit before we left the terminal. As we were tired and groggy from lack of sleep, it was very nice that Heinke and Gustl were there to pick us up with their big, black Mercedes. We stuck around their condo for the rest of the day, knowing that if our luggage came it would be delivered there, and in fact it came late in the afternoon.
Still, by carefully leaving at least one person at home on "luggage watch" we could do some things locally. Heinke, Monika, and I went shopping while Gustl stayed home, and then Gustl and I went walking around Bramfelder See (Bramfelder Lake) while Heinke and Monika stayed home. Bramfelder See has a small island in the center on which many pairs of herons nest each year, but off course they had all flown south for the winter. You may call them "bird brains", but at least they were smart enough not to fly to northern Europe in the winter! As a result, Gustl and I were watched by only a few cold and lonesome ducks who were disconsolately paddling around, probably thinking about how many more months of winter they would have to endure until spring, or maybe worrying about the bird flu epidemic.
In any case the walk with Gustl was invigorating. He set a pretty good pace for a guy pushing 80, certainly faster than most Americans walk. The exercise kept me awake for a while afterwards, but when I sat down on the couch back at the condo and listened to the other folks chatting in a soothing monotone my biorhythms finally remembered that it was really the middle of the night. It was ironic but probably predictable that after having failed to sleep when I wanted to while sitting in the airplane, I should fall asleep so easily when I was trying so hard to stay awake. Part of the problem was that the sofa was far more comfortable than the wretched Economy Class seats. I found myself nodding off and had to repeatedly catch myself as I toppling over to one side or the other. I managed to keep my eyes open, but Monika looked at me quizzically when she heard me starting to snore while she was talking, which is something I usually try to avoid. I think I read in the "How to Stay Married" manual that you shouldn't snore when your spouse is trying to hold a conversation. I finally excused myself to head for our room to take a nap. The nap kept me going through the evening meal and even until the "Tageschau" evening news program at 8 p.m., but right after that we both collapsed into bed.
Wednesday, December 14th
The birds cheerfully awakened us the next morning in time for breakfast with Heinke and Gustl, after which we hopped a bus and subway downtown with the intention of seeing the Christmas Market in front of the Rathaus, or city hall. But first we wandered through the downtown a bit to the Hamburg State Opera House where we hoped to purchase tickets for Die Fledermaus the next Sunday. The opera house had, like most of downtown Hamburg, been rebuilt after the widespread bombing at the end of World War II. I thought the modern glass façade still looked clean and elegant even after half a century. Monika had fond memories of the place because she had enjoyed many performances there before emigrating to the U.S. in the 60s. The stage door where she had waited for autographs of famous singers, musicians, and conductors was just as it had been when she was a teenager.
Although there were a lot of very new buildings in the area, the opera house wasn't the only thing that had survived unchanged from Monika's youth. In the very next block we found a cinema marquee advertising the film "Metropolis" and a narrow hallway leading back to a small theater. Monika remembered how after school she would pick her Dad up from work and go to that theater to see news, sports, short documentaries, and cartoons for an hour before going home for the evening. At that time the theater showed a rotating blend of short films, so you could come in and sit down any time and then watch until the features started to repeat. It looked to me like the theater had been converted to showing special arts features like "Metropolis", but at least it was still in business.
Along the way to the Rathaus we were sucked in by a bookstore. Different stores suck in different people, I suppose. It's kind of like quicksand; it's a lot easier to resist if just one of us has the susceptibility. I like to wander around in hardware stores, for example, but Monika doesn't so she usually can pull me out of one. But we are both susceptible to the allure of books, hundreds and thousands of books, with crisp, clean pages, that smell of new paper, and an unimaginable variety of stories to tell. So despite having a house littered with books and a basement with boxes of them, the store sucked us in.
We emerged after the better part of an hour with nothing for ourselves but a bag of children's books for our new granddaughter Annalise. We were glad to find the German children's books for her because reading German to her is part of our long term goal to make her bilingual. That strategic plan might be good, but our tactical planning was poor in that we then had to carry around a sizable bag of books for the rest of the day, and we did a LOT of walking. We crisscrossed the downtown area visiting old familiar (for Monika) sites like the Karstadt and Alsterhaus department stores, and the Inner Alster lake and canal area. Hamburg is sometimes called the "Venice of the North", but the canals in Hamburg are really "Fleetes" because the water in them is always slowly flowing.
We finally meandered our way to the Rathaus Square, where we found the Christmas Market installed in an area in front of the Rathaus itself that used to be a huge junction for trolleys when I first visited Hamburg in the 1970s. The market had four rows of Bavarian-style huts or kiosks arranged on either side of three pedestrian "streets" about the size of an alleyway. Everything was decorated with Christmas wreaths and lights, and people were thronging everywhere.
Besides the numerous food and drink vendors, the huts offered a wide variety of handcrafted goods for sale. Christmas angels, candles, pyramids, and stars were of course being sold, but many other things like knit caps and scarves, carved wooden bowls and spoons, lanterns, and jewelry were also being offered. We even saw a blacksmith making wrought iron implements with a portable forge and anvil at one shop, and a glass blower with some remarkably fine and delicate pieces at another. The one thing we did not see was anything tacky like a shop selling cheap T-shirts or tourist gewgaws, which I had half expected.
We drank some mulled wine while snacking on turkey breast shish kabobs as we explored all the shops. We carefully shopped for things we wanted while at the same time trying not to add to much to our load. I mean, we already were carrying a bag of books that increasingly felt like blocks of lead and our arms were getting tired.
Whilst prowling around we saw things you might expect, like a large Christmas crèche, a children's carousel, and an electric Christmas train, but also some things we definitely did not expect like a large white helium balloon that was being inflated in one corner of the market. It was at least 10 feet in diameter and looked just large enough to carry a single person. The balloon had about eight suspension lines attached to a ring underneath, but it had no gondola or anything and we wondered just what that was all about.
Night comes early in northern Germany near the Winter Solstice, so it became dark already by about 4 p.m. and we wandered around the downtown a bit just to see how all the lights looked at night. I thought the heart-shaped light displays along the Neuer Wall Strasse (New Wall Street) were particularly fine. The Rathaus itself was spectacularly lit against the black night sky, looking almost like some kind of gothic church or cathedral. As we walked to the subway stop on the shore of the Alster, the lights of Christmas decorations and many shops reflected brilliantly off the calm, black waters of the Fleetes.
We took the subway back to Heinke and Gustl's cozy home for the night, and I was very happy that Monika had talked me into seeing Hamburg during the Christmas season.
Thursday, December 15th
After breakfast we all drove to a big cemetery in Oejendorf for Tante Carla's funeral. Tanta Carla had been married Monika's Uncle Herbert and represented the last of the older generation in her family. When we had visited her on previous trips to Germany (e.g. Wanderung 5), I had always found her to be bright, cheerful, and mentally sharp even if physically frail. We had, in fact, planned to visit her on this trip but Heinke had called just before we left to inform us that she had died and that the funeral would be during our visit. I would much rather have been able to see her one last time as opposed to being at the funeral, but life doesn't always give us those chances. Still, much of that side of Monika's family had gathered for the funeral, and it was good to see them again.
The funeral service was not a religious service at all but rather a secular service of remembrance. A professional speaker gave a nicely phrased eulogy that reviewed the main events in Tante Carla's life including World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the modern German democratic state. The speaker also talked about Tante Carla's rather wide circle of family and friends as well as her interests, hobbies and activities. I had not known that she really liked German folksongs or that she had sung in a choir at one point, and I wish I had been able to talk with her about that. In fact, the family had selected some of Tanta Carla's favorite folksongs to be played at the beginning and at the end of the service. The service did not, however, include any personal statements by family or friends and I rather missed that.
The secular nature of the service kept the focus on Tante Carla and her life rather than on religion. I've been to funerals where the chief intent of the minister seemed to be proselytizing for new believers rather than saying anything cogent about the deceased or anything comforting to the surviving family, and I much preferred this approach. Afterwards we were all invited to a restaurant for drinks and sandwiches, and spent an hour or so catching up with the events for the other family members. Although it was sad to bring it all to an end, we returned home around noon and changed into our walking clothes for touring another part of Hamburg's downtown.
Since the temperatures were in the mid-30s and it was spitting rain when we left, we decided on looking at a museum that afternoon. We settled on the Model Train Museum in the harbor area, which was right next to the Toy Museum we had visited in Wanderung 5 and enjoyed so much. The train museum claimed to be the largest HO scale model train layout in the world, and since the layout occupied almost the entire floor of an old warehouse I could well believe it.
The layout was divided into distinct areas representing America, Hamburg, the Harz Mountains, Bavaria, and Scandinavia. The control room had at least six computers and around 45 different video screens that displayed the status of different parts the layouts. Some of the displays were schematic diagrams of the track layout and what trains were running, but others appeared to be direct video feeds from little cameras placed at different points.
The America region had different train layouts for the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and desert Southwest, and Las Vegas and Key West. The recreation of mountains and desert scenery was impeccable, but I was very surprised to also see recreations of U.S. interstates complete with moving trucks, buses and cars. Not only did the vehicles all move, they were carefully synchronized with working stoplights so that they would stop for red lights and start driving again precisely when the light turned green. There were no guide rails of any kind, and I had to wonder just how they kept all those vehicles on track and on time, but I suppose that the control computers were doing the busy work.
Every 15 minutes the ceiling lights would dim and the "night" variation of the displays would start up for a couple of minutes. Miniature office buildings and tiny street lamps would light up and toy cars would turn on their headlights and so forth. The most impressive versions of these night displays were the Las Vegas strip lights that included the major hotels and a section of Germany that had a recreated amusement park complete with a lighted Ferris wheel and even a free fall tower.
The Scandinavia area had a large expanse of snow-covered slopes with model trains, cable cars, skiers, ice skaters, and so forth. But adjacent to that was a harbor section that again astonished me. For the recreated harbor they had built a huge tank with real water in it, in which floated a large model container ship well over two feet long. This container ship was pirouetting around in the harbor, edging up to the dock, and then putting out to sea again. I could not see any kind of wires or guiding tracks of any kind, so my best guess is that it was all done by radio control of some kind. This was one of those museums that repeatedly raised the question, "How'd they do that?"
We worked our way back to the exit through several recreated sections of Germany. In the Hamburg area we saw a huge model of the big new AOL soccer arena for the HSV team, and there must have been at least a thousand (maybe tens of thousands) of recreated little soccer fans sitting on the benches cheering for the home team. They even recreated Hagenbecks Tierpark, the zoo in the middle of Hamburg. There we could see tiny people walking into the old entrance to the park that included the sculpture of elephants. But can you imagine what it would be like to sit down and make thousands of ½ inch high people out of miniscule sticks of wood for those displays?
The Hamburg area also had a beautifully accurate model of the Michaeleskirche (St. Michael's church) that we had visited with Lois during Wanderung 5. I remembered so clearly taking the elevator to the viewing platform right under the dome and being able to see all across Hamburg. The harbor area with the ships and even the model train museum itself was of course included in that part of the layout. It turned to "night" while I was looking at the Hamburg section, and the traffic on the Autobahn lit up in what appeared to be one massive traffic jam, which was unnervingly realistic!
At the end of all these layout areas we saw a couple of short films on the construction and maintenance of the museum exhibits. The amount of time, effort, and expense in constructing these intricate layouts and then keeping them running was obviously tremendous and required a uniquely skilled and dedicated staff. One young man liked to spend his nights in the museum working by himself building things so that he could listen to the music he liked. Another curator had built a beautiful radio-controlled tractor-trailer that he demonstrated by driving it on the streets in the exhibits, mixing it up with the computer-controlled traffic. I'm not sure these guys had much of a social life, but they were definitely young and energetic; the museum had a 10-year plan that included a big expansion of the layout in the next few years. I really hope they can bring it off because I'd love to see the multi-story Alps recreation that they intend to build.
There was a large lunchroom just outside of the gift shop area, and since we didn't know of any other place nearby, that's where we had dinner after our tour. I'm not sure if it was because we were there near the end of the day or not, but they gave us absolutely huge servings that each would have fed two people, so if you come this way you might start your meal by ordering something modest and see how much you get. In the end, they had to chase us out of the museum when it closed at 6 p.m. Of course, it was dark by now as we walked along the harbor area of Hamburg.
Although it was overcast and the night was quite dark, both the promenade along the harbor and many of the moored ships were brightly lit. Besides the tour boats tied up for the night, we also saw two old ships belonging to the Hamburg Historical Museum. The Cap San Diego was a 60s era diesel powered ship housing an exhibit on immigration that we had visited during Wanderung 5, and the Rickman Rickers was a square rigged sailing ship from the early 1900s. You could easily imagine sailors edging out along the ratlines to furl or unfurl the big square sails. The sailors have only a taut rope to stand on, and the topmost sails are a good 80 feet above the deck, so it is definitely not a job for those with a fear of heights! Both the old ships were floating quietly on the dark, glassy black water of the harbor, and they gleamed in the night like ghosts from Hamburg's past.
From the harbor we hopped a subway to get back to Heinke and Gustl's place for the night. Besides having a nice Abendessen (evening meal), we had a chance to chat with them for the rest of the evening. We had by this time mostly recovered from the effects of jet lag, so I could at least answer sensibly instead of snoring out loud and falling over on my side like I did the first day. It's a good thing I have understanding relatives! After a "gemuetlich" evening we turned in for the night.
Friday, December 16th
We headed off first thing after breakfast to see Altona, a city on the western edge of Hamburg that was really Monika's old stomping grounds, and visit her mother's grave along the way. Although there was another Christmas Market beside Altona's main train station, not much was going on in the middle of the morning and we headed over toward the cemetery. Since winter was just beginning, we didn't try to plant anything like we did for Tante Size's grave in Wanderung 5 but rather opted for an winter decoration of evergreens, holly, and a sprig of some plant with red berries for color.
After paying our respects at the cemetery, we ambled back toward Altona but got sucked in along the way by a toy store with a "going out of business" sale. I suppose having a new granddaughter made us more susceptible than most folks to the appeal of the colorful and sturdy wooden toys that are so popular in Germany, but the bottom line is that we didn't get out of that store until a half and hour and 50 Euros later. Monika convinced me not to get the wooden scooter, but I insisted on buying a wooden balance scale with little wooden weights and things despite the fact that our granddaughter will have to wait at least two years to be old enough for it. My reasoning, such as it was, was that I had never seen a children's scale before and I really had to buy it because I might never find another one. Monika chose much more practical things like little books that we could read to our granddaughter in German.
In any case, loaded down with two bags of toys and books we continued into Altona for lunch and an afternoon at the Altona Museum. The Altona Museum had a special exhibit on "Schaulust" that traced the development of different methods for creating visual presentations over the last several centuries. The exhibit covered the better part of two floors of the museum and had a lot more in it than I had supposed. We spent the entire afternoon there, and even at that I had to skip reading most of the labels on the exhibits, which was no doubt a relief to Monika.
The first section of the exhibit consisted of the shadow puppets common in Asia and Indonesia, as I recall. Basically these puppets were flat pieces of some kind of thin, stiff board that was brightly colored and perforated to let the light through. The arms and legs had hinges and sticks attached to the end so that they could be moved during the presentation of the play, which was performed with an illuminated sheet in front as a screen. The animator crouches well behind the sheet and the lights are placed around him in such a way that you do not see his shadow on the screen. When the animator pushes the silhouette figures right next to the screen, however, the light shines through the figure and onto the screen. The result is a low tech but quite vivid and effective version of a rear projection screen.
I watched the movie that showed how such a presentation was done, and in skilled hands the technique was remarkably effective. The museum displayed western examples of that kind of shadow puppet had also been sold as toy sets in Europe in the late 1800s. That intrigued me because it looked to me like something that even kids today would have a lot of fun with. At least, I know I would.
In Europe in the 1700s, sheets of paper with perforated designs were also used to make a kind of light sketch picture of buildings or scenes. Most of the early examples had a single point of light for a background, but later and fancier examples used a rotating drum of brightly colored strips to create a kaleidoscopic effect of changing color. In fact, the best of them really did look like fireworks displays, which was quite a charming effect.
Another section of the exhibit had a large collection of designs that were created by using mirrored surfaces of different kinds. I had once thought to use a cone-shaped mirror for recording a panoramic view while driving a motorcycle, and therefore I was quite intrigued to find some examples of cone-shaped mirrors and their associated pictures. Other pictures or paintings had been created with cylindrical mirrors, and it was amusing to compare the huge difference between the normal image in the mirror and the carefully distorted painting or print that gave rise to it.
The exhibit also included a very nice selection of panoramic paintings. Since I very much enjoy taking panoramic photographs of scenic vistas we encounter on the Wanderungs, seeing these forerunners was particularly interesting. I saw several paintings representing 360-degree views from a single vantage point. For one of them apparently some chap had sat up in a church tower for over a year while painting a 360 degree panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Think about the dedication that took, especially in winter! Well, thanks to the miracle of modern digital photography, I can do the same thing now in about a minute, which makes me extremely happy to live in the Good New Days.
One early painting used thin strips of paper to show three completely different pictures depending on whether you looked at it from the right, middle, or left. That was, as far as I can tell, the earliest ancestor of those weird and kitschy paintings of people where the eyes follow you as you walk in front of the painting. It just goes to show that you don't need high tech to have kitsch, although it undoubtedly helps. Later sections of the exhibit included optical devices like stereoscopic viewers and paintings designed to create optical illusions. One particularly vivid example was just a print of criss-crossed lines that gave such a strong 3-D impression that I found myself trying to pass my hand through the print!
In the most modern sections of the exhibit, the development of the motion picture camera was traced and nice examples of film clips and projectors were displayed. At the end, I was sorry there wasn't more to see. I really wish they had added a final section about computer animation and maybe the 3-D effects of some of the best modern computer games, but realistically you have to call a halt somewhere, I guess. If you have any interest in the history of the visual arts in general or pictures in particular, I would highly recommend the Schaulust exhibition.
It was once again dark when we retrieved our bags and exited the museum. We hopped a subway back downtown to see another Christmas Market, this one in the central shopping district of Hamburg. When we arrived we found the market sprawling over the pedestrian mall that connects the major shops in the downtown area. One advantage to being spread out like that was that there was more room for decorations like a huge Christmas tree and a mammoth lighted pyramid as well as for accommodating the throngs of people between the attractions.
Although more spread out than the market in front of the Rathaus, the total number of huts selling various types of food and handcrafts was about the same. Some, but not all, of the offered items were the same as at the Rathaus market. In this market we found, for example, a toy store that was not at the Rathaus market but we did not find a shish kabob food hut like the one we had patronized earlier. Still, there were several huts selling mulled wine, and one of them offered an oddly shaped boot as a glass so Monika ordered some wine and we took the glass with. The arrangement at all the wine vendors is that you pay a deposit when you purchase the glass of wine and are free to keep the glass after you drink the wine or return it to get your deposit back.
After wandering about a bit we circled back to Hauptbahnhof (main train station) past an electronics store and stopped in to purchase DVDs of old German movies and CDs of German folk songs. The CDs we play while driving long distances in the truck, and for some reason those rousing, and occasionally very funny, German folk songs really help cheer us up. The German movie DVDs were in PAL format and for Region Code 2 (Europe) so they do not play on any standard U.S. DVD player, but I had found after buying some during Wanderung 5 that they played quite well on our home computer system. That just meant that to see these movies we just had to sit in our computer room and watch on the monitor instead of a TV, which is no big deal.
The selection was excellent and as a result we ended up spending 105 Euro to get 5 DVDs and 6 CDs. Still, I reckoned that it was a quite reasonable price given that obtaining them in the U.S. would be extremely difficult if not impossible. After taking the subway back to Heinke and Gustl's place for the evening, we chatted a bit more with them before turning in for the night.
Saturday, December 17th
As our brief fling in Germany was inexorably coming to a close, our thoughts naturally turned to important issues like buying enough German chocolate to last us for a few months back at home! That required a trip to the nearby Aldi and Famila food stores. Aldi is generally the cheapest German food store but their selection is very limited. Our strategy was to check Aldi for the chocolate we wanted and buy it there if we found it, but then continue the search at the Famila store and hopefully complete our selections. That approach worked well for us and we stocked up on Ritter Sport and Milka brands of chocolate for us as well as the fancy French "Merci" brand to give to other folks. Walking around the area to do our shopping also gave us a chance to look at old restored houses in the area and historical sites like the old public hospital.
Our shopping completed, Heinke and Monika fixed us a very nice Mittagessen of beefsteak and potatoes. The weather was still quite blustery, but the snow and ice had created a beautiful winter panorama outside. Germans are generally quite fond of flowers, and Heinke was even growing some fancy ones on the windowsill a colorful contrast to the cold, icy scene outdoors.
Then we rested for a bit before driving out to Reinbek to take one last look at Tante Size's old house. The new owners of the house, Herr and Frau Eggers, had invited us out for a look-see and we had decided to take them up on that kind invitation. We were very curious what they had done to the place since we had lived there for two months during Wanderung 5. Before heading for the house, we took a short walk around the Reinbek Schloss, where we had listened to a concert with Lois.
When we arrived we saw that the exterior of the house had not fundamentally changed much although the yard had been completely re-landscaped, the carport completely renovated into a 2-car size, and the old moss-covered wood fence replaced with a new iron filigree version. The big tree shading the patio in back had been removed and many of the others around the yard were trimmed or cut back so that the house now had a lot more light during the day, which made it a quite cheerful place.
The interior had undergone a complete transformation since our visit in 2004. The vividly painted reddish-orange walls we had lived with had all been repainted white, as were all the doors, railings, and other woodwork. The oak plank floors had been sanded down and refinished to perfection, and the Persian rugs on the floor reminded me of the exact same type of rugs that Tante Size used to scatter about. Of course, hers slid around like magic carpets on the highly waxed floor and we had always had to take careful little baby steps to avoid falling. The Eggers had better affixed their rugs to the refinished floor, so we didn't have that problem this time.
Several walls had been relocated or removed to simplify the floor plan, and when you consider that this was a typical German house with masonry walls, that must have involved a tremendous amount of labor. In every room perfectly fitted moldings and baseboards had been added at the floor and ceiling. The basement had been transformed from a dark, dingy storage area to 4 beautiful new rooms with tile floors and white walls. The old chicken coop room was now a home office and computer room, a rather astonishing conversion. I don't imagine Tante Size's last chicken, "Bettina", would have recognized the place, but then again I don't suppose that makes much difference to a chicken.
Even more work was required to completely renovate both of the bathrooms and the kitchen. Besides the new, modern appliances, they had been outfitted with modern fixtures in a consistent cream and gold color scheme. In the living room, new cream-colored drapes had been added to the huge picture window and a new shutter system installed for better insulation in the winter. Even the old fireplace in which I had built so many fires to keep us warm on chilly nights had been completely refinished with a new white marble mantelpiece in front-I almost didn't recognize it.
All together, it was quite obvious that the current owners really loved Tante Size's old place and were willing to invest the time, effort, and money to make it into a model home. Since their taste in furnishings (antiques or reproductions) and decorations (white/beige with gold accents) was really quite similar to Tante Size's, I think she would have been pleased with the new owners. We certainly were relieved to see the place so obviously in good hands, and after the house tour we chatted with them in the living room for an hour or so before driving back to Heinke and Gustl's place for the evening.
Sunday, December 18th
Since this was the last full day of our visit, we had to dedicate the morning to packing. That was particularly important because of all the books, toys, and food, we had accumulated during our stay. I mean, what do you do with it all? Fortunately I had planned ahead for this problem, after a fashion. We had carried a collapsible suitcase with us to Germany as well as two additional nylon tote bags that we had been given by Trans Oceanic Cruises during our cruise around Italy (see Wanderung 10). Monika had been dubious about carting along extra carrying capacity, but in the end we needed every square inch of all of them. With some creative shoving and hauling, all of the new stuff and all of our old stuff did fit in our luggage, so we were free to take the afternoon off to go to the opera.
Since parking is such a problem in downtown Hamburg, the State Opera had cut a special deal with the mass transit system. Having opera tickets from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. allowed us to get a free ride on all the streetcars, subways, buses, and boats in the system from 2 hours before to 2 hours after the performance. Such a deal! We left right around 2 p.m. and took the subway to the Rathaus square where we revisited the Christmas Market, had one last chicken shish kabob, and then ambled through the old Post Office pavilion over to the opera house.
It was already getting dark when we arrived-this was, after all, northern Germany near the winter solstice on a cloudy day-and the opera house was brilliantly lit. We were in the 5th loge on the first tier of balconies, so we had an excellent vantage point for the performance of Die Fledermaus (The Bat) by Johann Strauss. Die Fledermaus is one of our all time favorites because it combines Strauss's lilting, melodic music with a kind of French farce plot involving marital dalliances, mistaken identities, a costume ball, a long sought revenge, and so forth.
Although we had watched the opera once before on television, seeing a live performance was very exciting. Basically Strauss's opera was similar to a musical in that the plot action was regularly interrupted by one or more of the characters bursting into a song based on the action of the moment. But my goodness what hauntingly melodic songs those were! In fact, they were so catchy that I had several of them running through my head for several days after the performance, and there are not many performances that will do that to me. For Monika, who had attended numerous operas and musical performances there in her youth, this was a splendid trip down memory lane and she also enjoyed every minute.
After the performance we wandered down the street to a tiny Christmas Market at a corner park. This was a much smaller scale Christmas Market with just a few food huts and a scattering of craft huts, but there were correspondingly fewer people and it was all together a quieter and calmer ambience than the big markets we had visited earlier. I had a humongous doughy pretzel with bits of ham in it and Monika had a bratwurst for our evening snack, and then we shared a farewell glass of Gluehwein. We continued strolling past the Fleetes and surprisingly quiet streets to the Rathaus area to catch our last subway train back home.
We had one last surprise as we passed the Rathaus Square on our way back to a subway station. The helium balloon we had seen earlier was now in the air right in front of the Rathaus and a young woman was suspended from it with the ring around her waist. The woman was dressed like an angel with a white leotard and little feathered wings on her back, and she was pirouetting in mid air. Two men held the tether lines and controlled the position and height of the balloon so that it could move in what was obviously a carefully choreographed routine that included music and a recitation of the Biblical Christmas story. It was very well done, and at the end of the performance the "angel" came down low enough to touch the hands of the children who enthusiastically crowded below and even scatter some "pixie dust" on them.
That put the finishing touch on our all too brief visit to Germany, and early the next morning Heinke and Gustl drove us to the airport for our flight home. Of course, instead of the 2 pieces of luggage and 1 carry-on on our way out, we now had 4 pieces of luggage and 2 carry-on bags stuffed to the gills with dirty clothes, gifts, chocolate, and what not. Fortunately that was all still within the legal weight limits for intercontinental flights and we incurred no surcharges. Despite a delayed take off in Hamburg we were able to run once again through the terminals at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris quickly enough to catch the plane for our transatlantic flight home on time, and this time our luggage even arrived with us.
During the 8-hour leg from Paris to Washington I finally made peace with the TV screen in front of my face after I found out that it could also be used to play computer games. I only managed to reach level 9 (out of 25) on Cave Crunch, a modern version of the old Pac Man arcade game, but I had more success on the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" game. That was despite the fact that the English version was, well, English in the sense of using all kinds of British trivia for the "easy" questions. That made me use up my lifelines often in the first few rounds rather than having them available for the ostensibly more difficult questions later on. Despite that handicap, I worked my way up to the million-dollar question twice, but both times I flubbed it and ended up with the consolation prize. Still, it passed the time pleasantly enough until we reached Washington, picked up our car from long-term parking, and drove home. Back in familiar surroundings we immediately fell back into our normal routine, and the wonderful details of our all-to-brief Germany vacation started to fade into the mists of memory, just as the best dreams so often do.Copyright 2006 by Robert W. Holt and Elsbeth Monika Holt