Cochem, day 2
My second full day in Cochem found me making plans to ride the KD tourist boat down the Mosel River to Koblenz and back; but alas, there's only one boat a day during the off-season, and it was going to interfere with Ricardo and Karin's plans for a little party that night, so I decided to skip it and instead just be a local tourist that day instead. Now, Ricardo and Karin were both off work yesterday, and both knew that I wanted to see some of the things in the area that are so unique to the Mosel region - castles, wineries and Roman ruins chief among them. So, the two of them decided to drive me around all day and go see some of the things the typical tourist might not get a chance to. Ja, sehr gut!
I'm finding it hard to describe just what amazing hosts Ricardo and Karin have ended up being - yes, funny and intelligent and artistic, just like all the other Germans I've met and stayed with this month, but also incredibly laid-back and not caring much about whether we stick to a tight schedule - which, believe me, is a decidedly non-German trait indeed. (Chalk it up to Ricardo's Spanish-Mexican-American upbringing, and Karin not being so happy about being a German these days.) Every moment I spend with them holds yet another fascinating conversation about culture or language or sex, plus they're always pushing food on me, plus always picking up the bills, plus are always doing things like driving me all over the countryside on their dime just because they know I want to see such things. And mind you, they're doing all this while being so poor themselves that they can't even afford to heat their own damn bedroom. (German houses have separate heaters in each room that can be individually set, which is the real reason you see doors on every room in German apartments; not because of a zealous sense of privacy, as my guidebooks said, but because it's much more economically feasible to just heat the one room in the house where you are hanging out at the time.) Given how tough money is for them right now, it amazes me that they've been so kind and generous towards me, and refuse to even have a conversation about me chipping in on some of the bills. It's very much appreciated, and I cannot describe how much better my tour is going this month by having these two particular people be a part of it.
Instead of one of the more touristy castle sites in the area, one that charges an admission and has restored the inside with all this cheesy furniture and is packed with Coke-swilling, gum-snapping, trash-talking Americans, Ricardo and Karin instead took me to an abandoned castle further out into the woods, one that hasn't been restored at all and that you can explore for free basically by driving up to it and climbing around with flashlight in hand. Sehr fucking gut, man, and so much more interesting than just going to some crappy tourist trap. Specifically, we went to Castle Manderscheider, which has this really interesting history. A little recap, for those who weren't following along with my online history tutorials before the tour started:
Long before Germany became a unified country in 1871, the lands where I am now (on the western side of the country, away from both the old Bavarian empire and the Prussian one) were in fact a series of hundreds of little kingdoms, some no bigger than a few square miles and with only a couple of hundred people serving as that king's royal subjects. Manderscheider was one such kingdom, established in the 1100s and eventually co-opted by the larger Trier kingdom about a century later. The king of Manderscheider apparently developed a beef with the king next door, which prompted them both to start building castles in the late 1130s directly across a river from each other where the two tiny little realms met. One king would build a new wall and the other one would; one king would build a new turret and the other one would; until eventually you now have these two giant, decrepit, crumbling monuments to the ridiculousness of war right across this tiny little river from each other.
I cannot tell you how surreal it is for me as an American to simply park a car, walk through the woods for a few minutes, and suddenly come across an abandoned thousand-year-old castle that is all yours for the exploring, like an old forgotten gas station or water-processing plant on some rural back highway. It's spooky on the inside, cold and dark, and it gives you a real sense of just how difficult life must've been a thousand years ago without heating or insulation or chimneys or electricity or any of the other niceties we now take for granted. Then you get to the top, peer over the edge of the embankment wall, and can scarcely believe what you're seeing with your own two eyes - this vast, ever-expanding view that you thought didn't actually exist in the real world, but was rather created in Hollywood special-effects departments to serve as the background for some pretentious historical drama starring Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter. And then suddenly the Brothers Grimm makes a whole lot more sense than they ever have before in your life.
This is something else I can't begin to describe fully with text alone; just how dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful the scenery is in the Mosel region. I mean, you'll see the pictures I took, just like I saw others' pictures before I left for my own tour, but no photo can ever do the landscape here justice, or give you the understanding of standing in the bottom of one of these river valleys and looking straight up. And the really interesting thing (to me, anyway) is that when you get away from the valley itself and just go explore the countryside a little, you're surrounded by landscapes that look exactly like the rural Missouri area where I grew up. And I mean exactly - later in the afternoon, for example, Ricardo and Karin took me to one of the volcanic lakes that dot the region, and I literally could tell not a single difference between standing there and standing at the edge of my friend Lee's family's resort down at the southern edge of the Lake of the Ozarks. No wonder the first Germans to immigrate to America flocked to southern Missouri and created many of the towns that you still see there to this day.
After a little more aimless wandering, just looking at the landscape and admiring the view, we eventually made our way to St. Aldegund; Ricardo and Karin have a friend there, and they thought we could probably stop and sneak a beer from him while he was at work. And in fact their friend Carlo was indeed there, working in the kitchen at the family restaurant and inn his family owns and operates. (It's called Kornelli Gasthaus, and I highly recommend you stopping by and visiting if you're ever in the area.) They asked me if I wanted a beer, but instead I asked for a glass of Riesling wine, which is the local specialty I still hadn't gotten to try yet while in the Mosel region. Well, it turns out that Carlo's family are winemakers as well! So not only did I have an amazing glass of dry Riesling, but one that his own family had grown, fermented, pressed and bottled themselves. Ja, sehr gut indeed!
After that it was off to yet another of the endless quaint little towns that dot the Mosel countryside, this time to visit the ruins of a monastery that date all the way back to the Roman Empire, plunked right in the middle of the most picturesque landscape you will ever, ever get to see. Just...stunning, you know? It frustrates me as a writer that I can't get this across better; then again, I guess there's simply some things that are impossible to describe with words alone. The ruins are surrounded by endless fields of grape plants, and we happen to be in the middle of harvest season as well, when the grapes are at their absolute ripest, so Ricardo ran off with his knife to collect up some grapes while Karin and I simply sat on a bench, smoking and talking quietly about what it was like to grow up in such a breathtaking location of the world, like she did. Then, finally, back in the car and back to Cochem.
The party last night was more like a small get-together; just Ricardo, Karin and me like normal, and their friend Janina as well. Janina is a funny one, and reminds me a lot of my friend Kate back in Chicago; funny, fast-talking, with a lot of nervous energy all the time, and wolfing down liquor like they're going to pass a new prohibition law tomorrow. Not much to report about this; we just all hung around Ricardo and Karin's living room all night, getting wasted and having incredibly fun conversations that patched together German and English in this delightful, Jim-Jarmuschian kind of way.
And now it's Sunday morning, and I'm desperately trying to get everything for the website finished, so that I can finally get it all posted and get my ass on my train to Munich in just a couple of hours. It's been a fantastic three days in Cochem, and just the quiet little break I so desperately needed at this particular moment in my month-long tour. Tonight - off to Bavaria! I'll be spending the next five days in Munich, in fact, staying with a professional photographer named Sebastian and drinking with a bunch of ex-pats I met on the internet while still in Chicago. I hope things are going well for you, no matter where you are, and I'll speak with you again tomorrow. Tschuss.
P.S. part 1: Another slang lesson for you. If you really want to get a loud laugh out of most young Germans, say "Ich bin ein Ami" when you're introduced to them. "Ami" is the young German slang term for American, and is a little bit of a insult while also being a compliment; it's hard to translate exactly into English, but it's basically "that person you kind of love and kind of hate at the same time." Young Germans use this term all the time, assuming that the American they're talking about doesn't understand it, so you'll get an appreciative little laugh from them for using the self-deprecating statement yourself.
P.S. part 2: Did the Cubs make it to the World Series? Has Bush declared martial law yet? I've received barely one piece of news from the US this month, partly because I never have time to stop and read the news, partly because the newspapers here cover the world in a much more intense way and American news not nearly as much (and partly, of course, because the English-language newspaper here, the International Times-Herald, costs a whopping two euros a day, which I consider way too much for a 24-page newspaper). Anyway, if someone would like to write in with the latest news from America, it'd be much appreciated.