Eating to Live or Living to Eat

Part of my job as a father of two young children, is to dispose of perfectly good peas.

As a general rule, I loath waste and though my wife professes to as well, she is also very skittish about any food item that could have possibly come in contact with an individual mold spore or, God help us, was over a week old. This is a personality trait that often times come in direct, diametric opposition to my own edible food criteria. For me, so long as it’s not trying to escape or is three distinct shades paler than it was when it was newly made, I’m pretty much game for eating it.

The root of our individual viewpoints comes, I believe, in the way we view food in general. Though I can appreciate, even wax poetic, about some meals (an octopus soup enjoyed in Belgium, springs to mind), I tend to view food as fuel. Though I prefer delicious fuel to cardboard flavored, I’m of the mind that both will get you where you want to go, so it’s no big deal to say… eat the exact same peanut butter and honey sandwich for sixteen days straight or to simply go for the english muffin with peanut butter every single morning for four years. It’s fast, easy, and fits the bill, though I do tend to go though a hell of a lot of peanut butter. I call it being practical. She calls it, “Eeeaugh”

Not so, Action Girl. She is of a different sensibility. She would rather go with out rather than eat the wrong thing. This is manifestly, a bad idea and though I love my wife with all my heart, if there is one thing that will transform the bubbly woman I’m married to into a blond haired, blue eyed hand grenade, it would be “lack of food”.

Action Girl is one of those individuals whose attitude toward the word is directly connected to the contents of her stomach. If it is filled with a fine meal, delicately made and thoughtfully assembled, then she could pretty much shrug off the house burning down. Let her skip lunch and then be foolish enough to enter the room, and the best you can hope for a swift and moderately painless death.

I have two sets of photographs to back this claim; both taken over seas when eating patterns were erratic and unpredictable. The first was taken on a trip to Bavaria where we were staying in a small village, nestled in an Alpine valley. When we discovered that bicycles could be rented and that you could pedal to Linderhof, a palace built by Ludwig II, we jumped at it. It wasn’t a hard ride on paper, only about ten kilometers. What they didn’t point out was that it was all up hill. Not a huge incline, to be honest, perhaps only about three or four percent, but it never once let up. Couple that with less than optimal bikes, a somewhat rough gravel path and you get a tougher than expected ride. We weren’t creampuffs when it came to biking and did manage the ride without having to wuss out and take breaks, but it was harder work than we had anticipated doing, fueled only by a light breakfast. Once we arrived, we immediately toured the palace and grounds, partly to beat the bus loads of camera toters that we saw in the parking lot but also for the sheer joy of walking on our own feet and giving our beaten-up our behinds a rest from sitting.

By the time we had exited the palace and seen the famous gardens and grotto, it was well past lunch. I had been nibbling on granola bars and though Action Girl had one too, she opted to wait for a proper lunch.

Bad plan.

Here’s where the photos come in. The first I took is of my lovely wife sitting on a bench in an amazing garden. If you look very, very closely, you can almost make out the black cloud that is hovering inches over her head. There might have even been flickers of lightning in there. In short, she does not look like a person enjoying things. Only the most inept and unobservant pan handler or pigeon would attempt to beg something from her. Not doubt with dire consequences. The next photo on the roll is of Action Girl again. This time she is swinging, one armed from a lamp post a la Fred Astaire. A joyful smile spreads across her face and the rain cloud is nowhere to be seen. Between these two photographs… was a hardy and delicious German lunch.

The other set of photos, this time taken in Alsace, lacks the “before” black cloud picture that so perfectly bookends the no-food / food equation. They are, however, very telling as well. To anyone who doesn’t know my wife, in these two pictures, she just looks like a happy traveler, walking towards me and wearing a smile. To those of us who know her well, we notice two things. In the first photo, you can see that she is just leaving a chocolatier’s shop. In the next picture, she is closer in the frame and you can now make out two important things. First, the yellow bag containing something like forty Euros of fine, hand made dark chocolate, clutched lovingly to her chest. Second, her enormous smile, possibly visible from space, which was put there by the anticipation of getting into that bag.

Food is heavenly to her and it needs to be done right or not at all. Very French of her, I’d say, which is odd since I’m the one with the French and she’s mostly Irish. All in all, our two ways of dealing with food match pretty well. Being a gifted cook, she routinely makes meals that would be at home in the best restaurants and kitchen stadiums. I firmly believe she could easily win “Iron Chef”. On the other hand, once the apple roasted chicken is more than a few days old or the raspberry torte is getting a bit stale, she is all for pitching it and starting anew. She’d rather make something else than warm up a plate of less than perfect leftovers. So, since we don’t have livestock at our house and I hate to see what I view as “perfectly good food go to waste, it has fallen to me to hoover out the fridge in an effort to keep up with the wonderful bounty of foods that we didn’t finish the first, second or third time around. Now with the addition of kids, my job and diet has expanded.

Short Stack’s attention to his dinner plate can be less than laser like on any given night. If food items are easily stabbed with a fork, he does pretty well, all things considered. Peas and chopped carrots are another matter though. The cooked carrots, though delicious, are hard to keep on the fork and tend to slip off the tines en route to his mouth. Peas, ever the tricky vegetable, are all for going on brief and exciting excursions across the table, into his lap and eventually, onto the floor where they find a final resting place under his chair or crushed flat under our feet. Because of their inherent difficulty, they tend to be eschewed and purposely forgotten. That’s where dad comes in.

Initially, I would simply clean off his plate and dump the forgotten peas down the drain. The waste bugged me a bit, but it was high summer and fresh vegetables were plentiful. Autumn is now heavily upon us, and with the changing of the season, so had come a change of my attitude. It’s almost as though I view these once frozen vegetables as bits of the warm, bright summer, and I cringe at thoughtlessly dumping them in the sink. As I walk away from the table, holding a ladybug shaped, plastic dinner plate, I scoop up the lukewarm leftovers with his miniature fork and shovel them in. Though some of the peas might have been dribbled with ketchup or a few of the carrots, marinated in soy sauce, I don’t mind. It’s all good fuel.

Tonight Acton Girl is making a roast and there will be leftovers-a-plenty. I will no doubt eat the loin’s share of this wonderfully prepared meal, but that’s okay. She won’t want more than two servings of it any way.

I bet, in the following week, it will go very well with cast off peas.

Cardboard Trees and Vampire Memories

With my favorite holiday, Halloween, coming down the pike in a little under two weeks, It’s made me reflect on my Halloween experiences from my youth. I’m a child of the Seventies, which means that I grew up during an interesting cultural transition time. Things will never be the same, naturally, but a lot of what made up the memories of my youth have not merely morphed into something else, but disappeared all together. Some for the better… some, not. The ability to sew, comes to mind.

One of my favorite family traditions took place every year, right about this time. I would have gotten into my Mom’s powder blue, 1971 Pontiac, and we would have driven to the mill store to pick out a pattern and fabric. It was time to get the costume all worked out. The two of us would find a seat in the little alcove filled with monstrously thick books and then pour over them, looking for just the right one for Trick or Treating. The only real limiting factor was that, living in northern New England, I had to be able to fit a winter parka underneath it.

Eventually, I’d pick the design and then the two of us would set off and search the piles of colorful fabric bolts, looking for the best matches. Purchases in hand, we’d go home and start putting it together. I say “we”, but in truth, it was mostly Mom who did the work. That’s not to say I wouldn’t help if I could, but like most children who offer to “help” Mom or Dad, I tended to make things go slower, rather then faster. My end of the project usually involved standing on a stool and worrying about being stuck with straight pins.

Every year, my mother would create some amazing costume out of nothing but some bundles of cloth, a tissue paper pattern and her Singer, electric sewing machine. Over the years, I had been successfully been kitted out as a ghost, a mouse, a vampire (at least twice), a shark, the Headless Horseman and no doubt a few others that escape me, but those are the fabric based costumes that I can recall.

A few costumes however, required more than ability with sewing. It required cardboard.

The first of these rigid costumes that I remember was the year I went as Pac Man. That wasn’t too hard to work out. Two large pieces of heavy yellow card stock cut into circles, minus a wedge for the mouth and attach it all at the edge. Holes for arms and a few to spy out of and there you go! Hardly the most involved costume, but hey, we’re talking Pac Man during the early eighties, here! I thought it was awesome and I was not alone.

The next idea was a lot harder and drew heavily on her bulletin board construction skills. Luckily, as a Junior High teacher, she had a lot to draw upon.

I wanted to be a tree.

A TREE! Where did I come up with these ideas? A lot of rolled cardboard, construction paper and Sharpie markers later, I was the spitting image of a maple tree in full foliage. That is, as long as all the maple trees you had seen were about five feet tall and made of cardboard and construction paper. I remember walking down the road at a tight legged shuffle, dropping leaves as I went and trying to spot them through the slot I peeked out of and skooching down to pick up my wayward, leafy appendages. Now I knew how a tree must feel as they shed their hard made mantle each autumn.

Eventually, of course, I stopped going out Trick or Treating and moved my efforts to scaring the beegeebees out of the kids who came to our house, begging for candy. Nothing too over the top… but fun. Then, like life does, things got busy and with a move to an apartment with my then girlfriend/now wife, we simply didn’t get Trick or Treaters or didn’t participate. After a few years and a succession of moves, we wound up on our little island where Halloween is once again something to revel in. All my creative costume juices, having long since dried up and turned to powder, were reconstituted by the flood of scary fun and enjoyment that is the norm out here. I was back in the scary business!

The first year, I simply dressed up as a Mad Scientist. White lab coat, spiky hair wig, goggles and high black gloves completed the look. It was believable and easy to assemble. I took on the roll with great enjoyment and did my best to scare kids a bit. Times have changed since the 70’s though, and kids simply don’t spook as easily. Next year, I’d do better. Much better. I was into this now.

The next year I threw my self into this project. With the materials and equipment at hand, I set aside the time to craft a huge skull… thing. Made out of clay, I patterned the basic shape on a horse’s skull. With the addition of sharp, tyrannosaur-like teeth and a more menacing brow, no lower jaw and a black robe that draped over the entire shebang and I had created a large and freaky looking monster wraith. I named him Tony.

I put the robed skull on two hinged, five-foot poles, one pole in front and the other in the back of the skull. What this meant was that Tony, when worn by me, could be moved like he was on a long neck. Held straight up, I was easily nine feet tall. If I wanted to go get close to someone, all that was needed was to swing Tony forward and I could be in your face in a split second. Add some glowing eyes and I had an instant kid magnet and/or repeller.

As I wandered around the neighborhood, I noticed that I was almost irresistible specifically to young boys. They were terrified of the giant monster but couldn’t resist getting a closer look. At one point, a nine-year-old pirate decided that he needed to exhibit his bravado to me and the others in the area. As I floated along down the road, he followed at what he thought was a safe distance calling, “I’m not afraid of you! You can’t scare me!”

In one fluid motion, I swung the head around and down to within a few inches of the pirate and scraped my vocal cords to emit the best, “Depth of Hell” sound I could muster. It was hard to see out from behind the black cloth that covered me but I could just make out his ragged pirate butt as he ran in full-screaming flight, down the street. On the sidewalk, now standing alone, was his father. For a brief second, I thought I was going to be in deep trouble. Then, with both hands cupped around his mouth, the man yelled to his fleeing son, “Run, Forrest! Run!” Hey, we live on an island. How far can he go?

This year, it’s Short Stacks turn to go out and collect candy. It’s his first real Halloween experience. We didn’t know if he would quite understand the idea behind a costume, but we asked him for his pick. With out hesitation, he made his pick. We’ve asked him several other times, just to be sure. He is.

He wants to be a dump truck.

It seems that so far as costume ideas go, the apple does not fall to far from the cardboard tree. At least the dump trucks don’t. Dear Lord. I better not bring up the idea of a Dump truck Tree. He’d want that instead. Now where’s my utility knife and duct tape?

Everyone, Hail to the Pumpkin King!

It’s coming

The trees are starting to talk with their dried out and rustling leaves. The dry air is clear and crisp giving an unfettered view of the fat moon that hangs over my house, giving off enough light to cast shadows on the porch or even read by. I’m getting excited. My favorite day is coming and the anticipation alone makes me smile while I rub my hands together.

All Hallows Eve

Halloween is, in my humble opinion, the very, very, VERY best holiday that there is. It is perfection as far as yearly celebrations go. Think about it. It involves candy, scaring the hell out of kids, fiendish decorations and relatively few family entanglements. It is easily the most egocentric holiday out there and you are allowed, nay, REQUIRED to eat an indecent quantity of mini 3 Musketeers bars.

I grew up in a house that sat on the corner of a dead end street. This little road jutted like a finger into the woodlands behind my house. If you had walked down the street and then, once it ended, had continued on, eventually you’d hit Vermont, It was a long way and deep, uninhabited woodland. In short, it was heaven for all the kids who grew up there. We lived in those woods and new much of them by heart.

Halloween was always a big deal and the woods often became a major player in the antics of the evening. At the time of my youth, the dead end street was packed with young families and we all pretty much knew each other. Inevitably, some kid or group of kids would decide that they would make a ghost tour in the woods and invite passing trick or treaters to try their luck and survivability by walking into the jaws of the set trap.

We went for it every time. How could we not!?

The path through the “haunted” woods was often marked with either ropes or old bed sheets hung from lines. There was a guide to make sure that you didn’t miss something that made you scream like a little girl and usually four or five others laying in wait for you as you stumbled over the exposed tree roots, groping in the darkness. Ripe for the spooky picking. It was always a blast and injuries were usually limited to ankles and egos.

The bottom line; it was SCARY!

It was the house down the end of the street that played the spooky music that made you pause and rethink how much you really wanted that Mars Bar. It was the guy who always dressed up as something vampireish or vaguely Frankinstiny and would whip open the door at a hundred miles an hour and scare the beejeebees out of you. It was the scarecrow in the chair next to the front door that you knew, you JUST KNEW, was actually a person but you managed to get up the nerve to and poke it with a stick only to have him jump up and send you screaming down the path and back to the road, clutching your loot bag to your chest. That is what Halloween is all about. Well, what it used to be about, anyway.

Now days, we have become obsessed with making our world as safe as possible and as laudable a goal as that is, we’ve siphoned a lot of the fun out of it in the process. Halloween has lost its punch.

Call me old fashioned, and I suppose that’s true, but I liked the old Halloween. It was dark and spooky and you felt like the whole world had become a haunted house. This brings us to our neighbors. Where we live is right next door to two of the best Halloween lovers I know. They are both commercial artist and having no kids of their own, make up for it by essentially being giant kids in their own right. Every year, a small team of friends descends on their modest house and transforms it into something… awesome.

The criterion for the theme is that it needs to be something that they feel is creepy or disturbing. That can be almost anything. The first year we saw their handiwork, they had turned their front porch into a monkey house, complete with tire swing, banana peals and four or five volunteers in monkey costumes. If you got too close, they would fling candy at you.

The next year it was the “Night Clinic”. No one likes going to the hospital, right? Theirs sported a creepy looking nurse at the check in counter, sounds of screaming from behind closed doors, bloody medical implements, a head in a jar and the “waiting room” on the front lawn, seeded with volunteers sporting interesting and unlikely maladies.

Following that was the year of the truly repulsive Good Humor Truck. They actually rented a real one for this and “redecorated” with lovely items like the “poop pop” the “Beefsicle” and the “Clam Cake”.

Next year was the Hillbilly town of “Weenholler” complete with seriously sketchy inhabitants, coached by a good friend who happens to be a native of the back hills of Tennessee.

Last year, it was the bad 1960’s Caveman movie genre with an odd night club setting, thrown in for good measure. That last one was more bizarre that scary, but the execution was amazing.

When compared to the little fake cemetery and spooky music that take over my front yard for the night, well… there just is no comparison. That’s not to say that we don’t get Trick or Treaters. Living just one house away from a draw like that insures that I’ll burn through at least thirty bucks worth of waxy American milk chocolate in about a half an hour. Once the candy is gone, we’ll turn off the porch light and the spooky music. We’ll bundle up the kids and wander over to the neighbor’s house and see what we can do to help. The party will still be rocking there and the screams won’t be silenced for at least an hour more. It’ll be great!

Short Stack is just old enough this year where he might get scared a bit but Lulu Belle will be blissfully ignorant. At least we don’t have to walk through a haunted wood to get there.

Darn it.

The Tone in Dresden. Part V

The stairs went down at a very un-OSHA friendly incline and the treads, though made of stone, were well worn. They also looked vigorously unforgiving if you happened to loose your footing and got to the bottom the fast way. We made sure to use the handrail. At the bottom an open doorway to the left opened into a wide and low room capped by a repetition of double barrel-vaulted arches. To our left was the bar, made of dark wood and traditional in every aspect. Scattered throughout the room were tables with booths hugging the walls, all crowded with patrons. The music was jazz and it was evident that jazz was the reason 99% of the people here, had come. A second doorway was just visible along the wall opposite the bar. We couldn’t see what was going on in there. The way in was blocked with the backsides of other jazz lovers who stoppered up the portal. It was standing room only, who ever was playing.

We quickly grabbed a booth that was vacated and took in our surroundings. One thing was for sure. One of us needed to go for beer. Mountain Man went up and picked up the first round. Fine black beer from the south. We happily drank and listened to the old style jazz that was being performed in the next chamber. It was a fantastic way to spend an evening, we both agreed. After a little while, the beers were drained and it was time for another round or to head out. We had time. Another round, it was.

I had been having a great time traveling with my friends but my lack of knowledge in the German language was driving me crazy. Everywhere we went, I was dependent on one of my fellow travelers decoding everything for me. I felt like the old, deaf aunt that had been dragged along on vacation and needed humoring and constant help ordering the chicken broth soup. I made up my mind. I would get the beer. That, I could manage.

“You sure?” Mountain Man looked at me with an arched eyebrow.
“Yah, how hard can it be? So what do you want?” I tried to look confident.
“Umm. Just another Schwarz Bier. You sure?”

With a dismissive wave of my hand, I got up and walked toward the bar.

When I was a little kid, I discovered my Father’s “German One” book from his college days. I thought it was fascinating and he happily showed me some of the vocabulary from the early chapters. Though he only took it for one semester and had forgotten most of what was covered, he did manage to teach me how to count to ten.

Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier, Fünf, Sechs, Sieben, Acht, Neun, Zehn.

I had all the components to make my order.

The number: Zwei (two)
The item: Bier (beer)
The type: Schwarz (stout)
And, a “please”: Bitte

I repeated it to my self under my breath as I approached the bar.

“Zwei schwarz Bier, bitte… Zwei schartz Bier, bitte… Zwei schartz Bier, bitte.”

I returned to our booth clutching three large beers.
“Uhh, what’s with the third…” Mountain Man looked confused.
“Shut up and drink. I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t you dare laugh”.

He didn’t need to. I could see his eyes twinkling at me with mirth over his foamy glass.

Dammit!

I had somehow, at the last second, blurted out “Drei schwarz Bier, bitte” With out hesitation, the barman had filled up three large glasses from the tap. I had no way to explain my error. Making him stop mid pour would have only made for a confusing moment for both of us. I got what I ordered and headed back to my table. Ugh.

The last problem encountered was that Mountain Man and I had already eaten a large dinner and then poured two giant glasses of heavy stout on top of it. We were stuffed and the third beer loomed at us like an unwanted friend. It was time to complete my humiliation. Next to us sat a nice looking, middle-aged couple, quietly enjoying the music and scene. Mountain Man offered the beer to them. Understandably, they were more than a little reserved at first. Then the situation was explained in his aggravatingly perfect German and you could see the two of them starting to get the joke. They smiled. She chuckled. I turned interesting shades of red and inspected the ceiling for… stuff.

As it turned out, the man spoke some English and we had a brief yet enjoyable conversation with them. We learned that the Tone was actually part of the old palace wine cellars and that it was THE place to come to for live music in this part of Dresden. They were also rather shocked that we found it at all since it was mostly locals who came here. Not tourists. He took the beer with thanks and we eventually found our way out of the bar, back up the stairs and into the cold night air.

The walk to the train station wasn’t far and we were eager to find our seats. We were tired and a bit tipsy and adventures a-plenty lay ahead. That night, the train pulled out into the dark with two happy tourists asleep and hogging the compartment all to them selves. It was a long trip, but that was fine. Tomorrow, we’d be in Friedrichshafen on lake Bodensee and then to Salzburg. I couldn’t wait.


Photo from here

I hope I can get back to the Tonne some day. For starters, I can hold my own now with the locals when it comes to chit chat and ordering. Also, there’s a guy there who owes me a beer.

End.

The Tone in Dresden, Part IV

“How on earth do you know they are going to Pirna?” To say I was skeptical is an understatement.

“The license plate, dummy.” She sweetly explained. It ends in ‘PRN’. I bet that stands for Pirna. Car plates in Germany tell you where the car is registered and that one’s registered in the city we can’t find. We’ll just follow it and see where it takes us.” Zen navigation. I like it.

We bumped along, chasing our unsuspecting pathfinder through rotaries and turn offs. We were actually having fun with this. Tailing our randomly picked car through the dark and drizzle coated streets of former East Germany, it felt like shadows of the secret police were driving with us. After a relatively short time, we started recognizing landmarks again. We were delivered to our destination and we let our scout car break free into the night. A short wobble up the stairs and we collapsed into various bunk beds to sleep off the night’s adventures.

My companions woke first and spent the early morning sitting by the window chatting and watching as gliders took off and landed in the field behind the youth hostel. Gliding has always been popular in Germany and it was nice to see that the sport continues. Once I managed to rouse my self out of bed I headed off to the highly questionable shower. About eight centimeters of water filled the large communal shower basin as four or five showerheads did their best to flood out the floors below. With only a brief pause I stepped in, flip fops still on and did my best to clean up.

We wasted no time getting back to the old city, this time taking careful note of the way back. We found a car park near the city center and moved out on foot. Two things stood out to me. First was the decay. There were still a lot of scars from WWII here. Some buildings that had burned in the bombing of 1945 still showed streaks of black above each and every window. The back alleys and smaller roads looked neglected. What was once a city park now covered in waist high grass with a massive black gas pipe cutting it in half, gates locked to the public.

The second thing that you could not escape seeing were the cranes. Cranes were everywhere and they thrust up from the city skyline like church steeples of construction. Dresden was being rebuilt. That was message that rang out from building site to building site. Things were finally changing and they were changing fast.

After we met up with Carla again we set out to see the town. There was a lot to pick from. Though it was a bit of a whirlwind tour, there are a few things that stand apart. The first was an old man playing an ancient hurdy-gurdy, complete with monkey and tin cup. The instrument looked rather worse for wear, but the sound was unmistakable and briefly enjoyable. A bit like bagpipes are. They make you smile, and then you retreat to a safe distance, well out of earshot.

In the days of the DDR, soft coal was used extensively for heating, and the city showed its effects. Massive stone edifices, having been bathed in the cinders of thousands of coal furnaces, were black and disfigured. One of these black smeared giants was the Katholische Hofkirche, the catholic cathedral that is one of Dresden’s unmistakable landmarks. We walked around to the front door and stepped inside. My breath was taken away. From the filth that clung to the exterior of the church, I was ready to see a somber and dark space within. Not so. Gleaming white walls and golden angelic statuary towered over us as we respectfully kept our silence so as not to disturb the service in progress. The effect of this dazzling open space made it feel as though you were stepping from a gloomy room and into the bright day, when in fact you had stepped from the outside to in. It was amazing to behold and gave you hope for the city’s reconstruction.

The next stop was the Zwinger Palace. This massive complex was ordered constructed by Augustus the Strong in 1689 to house his incredible art collection. The buildings surround a large central plaza and is a perfect example of royal excess. The majority of the structure was destroyed and burned out on the night of February 14, 1945 in the massive Allied bombing raid. After the war, in an uncharacteristically thoughtful move, the communist government decided to rebuild it exactly as it had stood prior to that terrible night. Oddly enough, due to the air pollution that had plagued the region, the new Zwinger looks as though it had stood there, unmolested for the last four hundred years. Inside was the art and we spent much of the day there. It was a day well spent. About half way through the museum palace, I rounded a corner to find an oversized painting of Mary, holding the infant Jesus while being gazed at reverently by some hangers on. What stopped me in my tracks were the cherubs at the bottom. Not just any cherubs, but THE cherubs. Those two little fat kids with wings that have somehow caught on across the U.S. and are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s been inside a Pier 1 Imports or any greetings card shop.

So THAT’S where they were from! As an artist and art teacher, I was embarrassed that it had never occurred to me that there was more to the painting than just the two pudgy angel babies. Who knew?

As the day wound down, we headed to a movie house where I was introduced to the concept of eating good food and drinking beer, all while enjoying a movie. It was the perfect way to end the day. Mountain Man and I were leaving our friends Carla and Laura from here. We would be traveling on to Salzburg on our own while they both needed to head off home. After good byes and addresses were exchanged, we watched them both disappear into the evening. The night was still young and our train wasn’t due for hours so with out hesitation, Mountain Man and I set out to find some fun. We found it in the form of a bit of ruined wall gradually rising from the ground. It was a fragment of the old palace foundation, left over after the post war clean up. In the middle of the wall was an open door way leading to a long and steep set of stairs that disappeared under the city. A neon sign balanced over the entry was twisted into the shape of a yellow trumpet. Below that was just one word, “Tonne”.

In we went.

The Tone in Dresden, Part III

As we worked our way through the suburbs of Dresden, the view was less than inspiring. All around us was the rusting wreckage of Soviet era industry. Dilapidated buildings full of frozen machinery simply walked away from by its workers once the State no longer existed to prop it up. My memory of much of the ground that showed through snow appeared in rude shades of red and yellow, mirroring the shades of the forgotten steel trusses and tanks, now sitting disused and fenced off from hapless passers by. It was obvious that it would take years to clean up. If any one could do it well however, I had faith in the ability and efficiency of the Germans.

Once the outskirts had been successfully pasted, we drove to the heart of Dresden. Well, Perhaps, “heart” isn’t quite right… The lungs, then. We had to meet up with Carla’s friend, Laura. The place scheduled for our meeting was one of the beautiful stone churches that punctuated the cityscape. Old and massive, our meeting place loomed against the grey skyline and we piled out of the car, unfolding long bent legs and backs.

“So, where are we meeting her exactly?” I asked.
“Hmmm.” Carla thought for a moment. “I didn’t ever really specify a place. I just told her to meet us at the church.”

I can see how this could sound like a good plan but there is one thing to consider. These churches are huge! Dozens of people milled around the square in front of the church and since our new travel companion wasn’t quickly spotted, we decide to go looking. Mountain Man had met Laura once and so I went off with him while Carla went off alone to search. True to form, once Carla was out of sight, Mountain Man threw me a curve ball.

“I don’t really remember what Laura looks like.”
“Eh? Then what good are we going to be? There’s not much we can do, then.” I retorted.
He looked back at me with his big, goofy smile. “Let’s just ask around. One of them must be Laura.”

So, the two of us walked around the church asking young woman if they were Laura. In retrospect, I’m more than a little amazed that we didn’t get questioned by the police. After only a little while, we were rewarded for our persistence when we did, in fact, find Laura. Well, actually, it was “a woman named Laura”, but not “OUR” Laura. A brief and somewhat confused conversation with the indulging lady and we figured out that she was not the Laura we were looking for. Just as we were completing our apologies and goodbyes with Laura #1, Carla appeared with Laura #2. The correct Laura had been found.

After a round of introductions, and a brief flurry of chitchat in auf deutsch, Laura noticed that I wasn’t joining in the conversation. Once informed that I didn’t speak German, she quickly switched to a very nice, upper class British English. As it turned out, that was no hardship for her. She was, as it turned out, English. Her father was in the British military and had been stationed in Germany, where the family lived during most of her young life. Later on she explained that she’d actually spent more time here than she dad in England.

Carla knew of a place we could all stay for cheap in the out skirts of the city. Technically, it wasn’t even in Dresden but in a town called Pirna. As we passed back through some of the old industrial wreckage, Carla told us about the way it was when she grew up here.

“The city was still a mess. There were bombed out buildings everywhere, left over from the war. The Russians didn’t foster fixing the old buildings, too much. Most of the programs were about new construction. Giant apartment blocks and manufacturing complexes. For fun after school, my friends and I would go and dig through the old ruins, looking for treasures. All the industry made the air here filthy. My father worked in one of these plants and I, for one, am not sad to see them closed. They were awful.”

As the story ended, we pulled into a parking lot. Looming over us was the quintessential Soviet era hostelry. It was a mustard colored block with windows and a door. Once inside, the décor did not change much. The best parts were the goodies being sold at the check in counter. They were still trying to sell off the last of their DDR flavored memorabilia. Key chains, patched and stickers did their best to evoke pride in a cast off and failed system. Happily, I bought some to stick on my truck and confuse folks back home.

After check in, we stowed our stuff and headed out on the town. This is where things start to get fuzzy for me. It was late in the day by now and we were getting hungry and thirsty. The hunger was taken care of at a Chinese restaurant that Carla knew of. The thirst was taken care of at a variety of venues. As the evening wore on, Carla informed us that she was going to be heading along. This wasn’t a surprise. She had told us earlier that her mother lived in Dresden and she was going to be spending the night with her. We wished her good by and made plans to meet tomorrow. As she walked away from our little group, I increasingly became aware that none of us left knew what to do next. Laura didn’t know Dresden very well and Mountain Man and I, not at all. So, we did what we could. We had another beer.

Once we realized that we needed to get back to the hostel and had completed a chilly “sober up” walk, we encountered another problem. None of us were sure where Pirna was. After a quick and lively discussion, we started to drive in the direction of consensus. It was not a sure thing, by any stretch. Three sets of eyes swept the road signs in the hopes of finding the breadcrumbs that would lead us home. Nothing… Not good.

“A-Ha! There we go!” It was Laura.
“What? Where!?” Mountain Man and I shot forward in our seats and scanned the dark roadsides.
She triumphantly declared, “The car in front of us! They’re from Pirna! We’ll just follow them!”

Either she was joking, had an unbelievable memory for cars or knew something I didn’t. Which ever it was, I wasn’t the one driving so the choice to take the next exit wasn’t mine. At least I had the back seat to my self. That would be comfortable enough to seep on.

Next, I actually get to the city!

The Tone in Dresden, Part II

So, that was the extent of the cultural diversity in this little corner of the former East German Republic. One half Danish. It was an eye opening experience for both parties and the first time I ever really considered the “Great American Melting Pot” that was so enthusiastically explained to us when were kids. I finally got it. The day went by pleasantly if not cluelessly for me. The summit of my embarrassment came when I had the pleasure of visiting a first grade class. The students were happy, orderly and charming. The thing that stood out to me was the inescapable fact that this bunch of six year olds spoke far more English than I did German. I had willingly tossed my self into a place where I was woefully inept at communicating with the locals in their own tongue and I was really starting to feel like a bozo for my lack of prowess.

Over the next few days, Mountain Man introduced me to his friend Carla, the art teaching English teacher. We three hit it off wonderfully and we decided that a road tip was in order. There was a school vacation coming up at the end of the week and the decision was made that we should go and visit Carla’s hometown, Dresden. I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect. As a student of history, my mental images of Dresden were of after the bombing in 1945. Slaughter House Five, essentially. I knew historical Dresden, but not what was there now. I was in for a real treat.

The night before we departed, we headed out to Carla’s house for dinner and a tour of her village. The house was an amazing site all on its own. Standing at something like five stories high, it was 90% roof and all thatch. The whole structure reminded me more of an enormous hay bale rather than a home. This was a typical farm house for the region and traditional in every way. It was also beautiful and like something out of a storybook. Carla welcomed us in and gave the grand tour. The family lived on the first floor only. Traditionally, there would have been a place for the larger live stock right in the middle of the house. The winds that blow down out of Siberia are cold and the flat terrain does little to impede them. A nice warm cow in the house throws a lot of heat… and other stuff, but most importantly, heat.


(not Carla’s house, but a dead ringer for it. Picture from here)

Carla had built a barn out back and the cow had been replaced with a wood stove. Smart girl. The house was very nice and she showed us with pride all the things that she and her family had made from scratch, including the couch, necessitated by life lived under the DDR. You never tried to buy something that you could make or trade for. Chances are, even if you had the cash, what ever you wanted wasn’t available anyway. The whole house was a lesson in ingenuity. The massive multiple attics were filled with non-perishable foods, old luggage and, to quote Carla, “giant spiders”. I refrained from a detailed inspection.

On one shelf back in the main house, something caught my eye. It was a little ceramic statue of the, “Hear, see and speak no evil” monkeys. I had noticed the figurines in the place Mountain Man was staying at as well and remarked on them. “Oh,” replied Carla. “You’ll see those a lot. It goes back to the DDR times. They were to remind you to be careful about what you said or did. You never knew who was listening. The Stasi had informants everywhere. We used them as little reminders to watch what we said out loud and to whom.” That was a sobering thought. Freedom of expression was still something very new here in the eastern part of reunified Germany. It would be a while before people stopped looking over their shoulders before they spoke.

The next morning, we were off to Dresden. We packed into Carla’s little BMW and zipped off across the frosty fields. The coffee steamed up the windows as the radio burbled away in Polish. “That’s the thing about America,” said Carla. “All you hear on the radio is English. Here in Germany, I grew up listening to so many other languages that they all stuck to one degree or another.” She was correct, regarding the place where I grew up, anyway. The closest I ever got to a foreign language was listening to the little, old French Canadian ladies chat at the super market or the Latin in church. Either way, hardly something to learn a language from. She had grown up listening to Polish, Czech, Russian and in secret, English via Radio Free Europe. Language was part of her life and I told her how right she was in the only language I had. She followed this up with a joke.

“What do you call someone who can speak three languages?”
“Trilingual”, I replied.
“What do you call someone who can speak two languages?”
“Bilingual.”
“That’s right! How about one language?”
“Ummm. Monolingual?” I groped.
“No. American!”

Rueful laughter and knowing looks ricocheted around the car as we sped along. Again, she was right, of course.

Only kilometers out side the city limits, traffic slowed down to a crawl. There was some unseen issue ahead and the cars on the motorway started to bunch up and we realized that we would be here for a while. The chatted and solved the worlds problems and at a walking pace edged forward. After a while a large truck came into view at the side of the road. At first we thought that they were perhaps the reason for the bad traffic. As we got closer we realized that, no, it wasn’t their fault. They had merely pulled out of the line of inching cars and parked for a moment. The reason was immediately obvious. There, next to the truck stood the drive and his co-pilot, their backs to the road and hands down in front of them. A geyser of steam billowed up from the cold ground where they were relieving themselves of that morning’s coffee. Carla blushed and made a comment about how crass the situation was. Mountain Man and I mostly felt badly for them. We were in the middle of farm country and you would have had to hike away from the road and over the horizon to pee in private. Feeling a bit roguish, Mountain Man leaned over and tapped the center of the steering wheel, sending a friendly, “Beep Beep!” out to the two truckers. Carla just about melted under the dash. In unison, the two men looked over their right shoulders, smiled and waved with their free hand. We waved back enthusiastically. If Carla had had a periscope, she would have been driving with its aide. Run silent, run deep.

A half an hour or so later, we finally picked up speed and made it to the edge of the city of Dresden. It had been a longer trip than we expected but we had enjoyed the trip. Now it was time to find a place to stay and get something to eat. That, and it was also almost time for me to understand just how badly I wanted to speak another language. We were meeting a friend of Carla’s in Dresden and as a group of four, I would be the only one who didn’t know what everyone was talking about all the time or accidentally ordering the side of squid eyeballs when all I wanted was a salad. Aah, to be American.

Next installment of the Tone, later. Stay tuned!

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