Triplogue - Germany

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Preparing for the next invasion?

9 July, Ter Apel, Holland to Oldenburg/Hamburg, Germany, 115km

While planning this trip, tracing my finger along the route I wanted to follow, I was always irritated by the chunk of Germany dividing Holland from Denmark. What was a country like Germany doing separating these two supremely civilized nations? Eventually, I accepted that there was no getting around it, and that we’d have to deal with it when we got there.

Of course I never anticipated pedaling through the remnant of the Third Reich on my own, so it was with special sense of dread that I woke up this morning in my tent, at five-thirty a.m. I lay in my knotted sleeping bag for a while, listening to the ducks splash noisily in the lake and waiting for human sounds to signal that it was okay to get up and move around. None came, though, so I started cleaning my chain at around seven, trying to be as silent as possible. There was still no one stirring as I packed my bags, folded up my tent, and headed out of town under the menacing sky. The Dutch apparently like to sleep late.

Bourtanges was only twenty kilometers away, but it felt a lot longer without any coffee in my belly, fighting a headwind and cursing the drizzle. Still, I was struck again by how beautiful Holland is, and what a great achievement that is for such a flat place: why couldn’t they have done this with Illinois? As I mused upon this question, a familiar smell enveloped me. In my pre-caffeinated state it took me a while to realize that I was surrounded by fields of marijuana (or at least hemp) plants. I was half-tempted to harvest one for myself, but wasn’t so sure that the Germans would take kindly to my arriving in their Fatherland with a big pot plant bungeed to my rear rack.

My bike was making a funny sound so I stopped in the first town –called Sellingen—where a guy in wooden shoes sold me a spoke wrench. Another similarly shod dude sold me a banana. Wooden shoes were everywhere. It soon became apparent that Sellingen is a wooden shoe center (perhaps because of its proximity to the German border: last chance for tourists to buy a pair), with homemade models on display in front of many of the village houses.

I got a little lost on the way to Bourtanges, another star-shaped fortress of a town --actually a lot more fortress than town. No fewer than three concentric walls, separated by moats. I’ve never seen such a well-defended place. As I rode over the second drawbridge into the village, I wondered what there ever was to defend here. The whole village occupied less than a hectare, and consisted of a central square acting as a hub for the six or eight street-spokes, each only one block long, that lead to the innermost set of walls. I spent the last of my guilders here on a cup of coffee and a miserable excuse for a sandwich: a slice of velveeta-esque cheese on a Wonder hamburger bun. In my experience, Dutch cuisine ranks among the world’s worst. But of course I haven’t been to Lithuania yet… Munching on my meager repast and staring off into the drizzle, I realized with irony that I was going to miss Holland a lot.

I crossed the German border on a deserted road, and one of the first things I saw was a sign indicating the speed limit for tanks –rather disquieting right at the Dutch border, I thought. I was pleased to see, however, that there was a bike path. It wasn’t nearly as well-maintained as the ones in Holland, though, and certainly not as used. It seems like everyone here has traded in his or her three-speed for a shiny new Mercedes.

Outside of the character-free town of Dorpen, I got a little lost again before hooking up with the Kustenkanal, which I followed for 70 mind-numbingly dull kilometers. The road was indicated as scenic on my Michelin map. I guess those wacky tire makers in Clermont-Ferrand find truck traffic scenic. At least there was a bike path—albeit a very bumpy one-- affording occasional glimpses of the industrial-looking canal through the underbrush. For many, many miles, I didn’t pass through a single village or see a single fellow cyclist. Pedaling against the wind in such flat and dull surroundings quickly took on a purgatorial aspect, so I leapt at the first chance to take an alternate route, a smaller road on the other side of the canal. This road was much prettier, like a tunnel through a canopy of trees, and passed through ersatz villages with strange names, like Harben I and Jeddeloh II. "What kind of straight person named these places?" I wondered, "A disgruntled Deutches Telekom employee?" My question was soon answered by a rock which commemorated Harben I’s 50th anniversary, in 1985. –Hitler! Of course!

From here on, I was reminded as I always am in Germany of the "Fawlty Towers" episode where John Cleese instructs his hotel employees how to welcome German guests. "Whatever you do, don’t mention the War," he tells them, only to begin goose-stepping himself once the Germans arrive. It’s impossible not to think of the war, since evidence of it is everywhere here: towns which were obviously flattened and hastily rebuilt; the countryside dotted with bunkers; a near total absence of men over sixty. Whenever I see an older person in the street in this strange country –almost invariably a woman—I can’t help but think that she voted for Hitler as her leader, her fuhrer. . I guess I’ve seen too many war movies filled with anti-Nazi propaganda. As hard as I try, I can’t get thoughts of the war out of my mind in my dealings with Germans, which makes it impossible for me to relax or even feel at ease here.

I had ridden well over a hundred kilometers by the time I reached Oldenburg, and it seemed a pleasant enough place to spend the night, full of cyclists and sidewalk cafes. But as I’m expected in Copenhagen on Saturday night, I hopped on a train to Hamburg after a late lunch (at 4:30) of bratwurst and beer. Unfortunately, I had to change trains (and platforms) in Bremen, meaning schlepping my fully-loaded monster bike up and down stairs. The first train looked and felt like a rolling hospital waiting room. A young, zaftig conductor mercifully helped me get my bike into the luggage compartment and sold me a ticket. It wasn’t until he turned around to serve the next passenger that I noticed the shape of a bat shaved into his hair. I conversed briefly with a young, cute Pakistani on his way to Hamburg for business. I told him we might be pedaling through his country next year, and he responded, "Yes, but why a bicycle?" He gave me his e-mail address and stared at me with frank and discomfiting desire. When it was time to get off the train, he couldn’t help me with my bike, since all his energy was devoted to a feeble attempt at concealing his…uh… tumescence.

The train to Hamburg was miles long and of course I had to rush all the way to the other end of it for the luggage car. Again, the staff were helpful and friendly and I wondered if I should be visiting Germany by train rather than by bike. It was hot and I was sweating from all the effort, so I sought out a compartment with an open window. When I found one it contained two friendly German businessmen. Jack lives in Izmir, Turkey, and owns a dried fruit operation, while his agent, Wolfgang, lives in Hamburg. In order to converse with me, Jack closed the window, causing me nearly to suffocate. I gave praise to Jesus that it was a fast train; in no time at all, we were in Hamburg, where Wolfgang’s beautiful 20-something Ameriphilic son met us at the platform. He expressed his regret at not having the time to show me around the city, and I expressed it right back.

I was beat from all the heat and all the traveling, and made the mistake of choosing a hotel blindly from the Spartacus Guide. "Harald’s Hotel and Bar" leapt out at me from the page With such an excellent name, how could I go wrong? Indeed, after a short pedal across the great blandness of central Hamburg, I found myself in a comfortable room overlooking a garden and was assisted with my luggage by an adorable creature called Adam. My impression was not to last, however. After a necessary shower and change, I went down to the bar for a beer. The place was full of amazingly cute boys, whom I soon learned to be whores. Many of them flirted with me, causing in me a crise de viellesse. Could I possibly look old enough to be a potential client? I quickly downed my beer and went outside to have a walk around. Reeperbahn, I soon learned, is a huge German-style (read: antiseptic) red light district. All up and down the street, I was assaulted by the come-on’s of touts in front of "cabaret" shows and whores (of the female variety, that is) of all shapes and sizes. One block was so full of working girls that walking down it was like running the Gauntlet. I soon learned to stay on the other side of the street. All the sordid tat spilled into the side streets of the Reeperbahn as well. One street called "Grosse Freiheit Strasse" –which I think means something like "big freedom street"—resembled uncannily the infamous Patpong in Bangkok. The same neon, the same touts, the same swillers of beer. I peeked into a number of bars but didn’t dare go into any of them. Inside were drunken sailors, elderly whores and derelicts of every sort. After gobbling down a nasty dinner, I beat a hasty retreat to my room. To me, Hamburg looked like a giant Fassbinder film come to life, and I didn’t feel quite equipped to deal with it yet.

11 July, Hamburg/Neumunster to Grossenbrode, 126km

When I was little I found it humorous that there existed somewhere a whole city full of people who called themselves hamburgers. And I suppose I still do (the "Gute Fahrt" signs one sees on the way out of villages also remain a source of puerile amusement for me). Yesterday I spent a whole day among the Hamburgers, a day which marked for me the arrival of summer. It was warm and gloriously sunny for the first time in what felt like months. The road beckoned, but I spent the day trapped and baking in travel agencies and telephone booths, trying to arrange travel from Copenhagen to Milwaukee for my grandmother’s memorial service next week. I walked from place to place in order to make sense of this immense town. It felt efficient and flavorless (two adjectives which have always summed up the whole of Germany for me; for many years I have maintained that Germany is "the Ohio of Europe", and I remain steadfast). There were only a few old buildings, hemmed in by busy roadways and office/apartment blocks designs by graduates of the Legoland school of architecture. Looking down almost any street, it loomed there in the distance: the radiotelekommunication-tower-mit-der-revolvingrestaurantamdertopp. Every large German town seems to have at least one. The center was full of expensive shops and people carrying shopping bags, the overall impression being that of mercantilism gone awry (I suppose that the Reeperbahn is just another side to this phenomenon). On the advice of several different people, I also took a stroll along the lake in the center of town, which is precisely inverse to Ter Apel’s lake back in Holland. It has an organic shape to it on the map, but is in reality almost perfectly square, in order to fit into das HamburgerMasterPlann. I also took a look at the much-touted harborside, which is almost monumentally ugly. It goes on forever and consists of a monotonous series of floating docks that are really just two-level barges. Walking along them, with the docks listing one way and the boats the other, I got a hint of what it feels like to be seasick for the first time in my life.

In the evening I went out once again in search of a decent watering hole, figuring that a city as enormous as Hamburg must have at least one. When I asked the boys in my hotel’s bar where one could find a bar that didn’t also act as a supermarket, I was met with blank stares. I actually ended up finding two, though neither could hold a candle to the queer bars of, say, El Paso. At a place called Rudy’s I spoke –or rather listened—at length to a 67-year old Swiss opera singer named Franz. He was verbose yet fascinating, full of stories of an on-and-off boyfriend of yore from Laredo, Texas, a fabulous green dressing gown from Mexico City that made its debut on an Atlantic crossing aboard the France, and a libidnous stage director in Aix-en-Provence. His delivery was theatrical to a fault, and as engaging as his tales were, I felt a bit uncomfortable being cast in the role of the audience. Later, I went to a potentially excellent dive called "Wunderbar", where my attention was attracted to an intriguing-looking girl sporting a no-nonsense blond hairdo and pointy horn-rimmed glasses. She was the only girl in the place and obviously alone,. To strike up a conversation, I used the wrong approach, asking her what such a gorgeous creature was doing in such a dump. She apparently didn’t catch my intended ironic tone, and answered in a very serious monotone: "Id’s a homosegsual bar and I am homosegsual." Uta –as I learned she was called-- went on to tell me how she had just moved to Hamburg from Stuttgart for her job and how she felt a bit lonely in her new surroundings. We compared extensive notes on our common state of solitude, and we seemed to be talking on precisely the same wavelength. But maybe it was just the beer.

I didn’t leave Hamburg today until past one this afternoon. The amazingly patient Fraulein Schmidt, from one of the travel agencies I had been dealing with, came through with a ticket that didn’t cost the equivalent of Zambia’s GNP. Only problem was that her computers were down all morning. And to further complicate things (my theory is that Germans like things to be complicated), I had to pay for it in cash, which meant a wild goose chase through the banks of Hamburg attired in already sweaty cycling gear.

I took train to get out of town, all the way to the little town of Neumunster. Riding in the baggage car with me was a Dutch boy named Nick, who was also riding his bike from Holland to Denmark. It was his first extensive bicycle trip and he was cheating too, wanting to get to the relative civilization and coziness of Denmark a.s.a.p. He complained unabashedly about the state of the German bike paths, the high costs of everything, and the unfriendliness of the people. He changed trains in Neumunster to get closer to the border, but if his ride this afternoon was anything like mine, he may very well have changed his mind about Germany, since the riding was nothing short of sublime.

I rode through a landscape of rolling hills carpeted with waving fields of wheat and corn, liberally sprinkeld with rippling blue lakes and lush forests. Had the train somehow transported me to Wisconsin? I caught myself longing to linger in this enchanted area for a few extra days and fantasized about doing it with Fred. Every now a Gunther or a Greta would come screaming around a corner in a BMW, disrupting the splendor of it all, but most of the day was perfect cycling bliss. The road between the tiny village of Langenhangen and Oldenburg Im Holstein (which explained the presence of so many black and white cows) was particularly splendiforous. It was the golden time of day, where the light makes everything look beautiful, and the narrow road plunged through meadows and glades towards the glistening sea in the distance.

Further on, I endured a minor catastrophe. I had meant to get as close as possible to the ferry for Denmark, which leaves from Puttgarden on the island of Fehmarn, but the road running alongside the highway came to an abrupt end under the bridge. There was a long and steep staircase, halfway up which I pushed my bike, using all the strength I had. When I investigated the steeper and narrower part remaining, I realized it meant crossing over train tracks and two sets of guardrails. I went back to join my bike feeling helpless, and the thundering noise of a train passing overhead made it clear that I’d have to turn back. This meant unloading my bike completely and making several trips up and down. Exhausted and famished, I wanted to cry. I had intended to check into a youth hostel marked on my map on the other side of the bridge, thus marking another bikebrats first. But it was getting dark and I had to backtrack all the way to Grossenbrode; I’d have to spend the night there. I ran into a vanfull of Chinese people frantically looking for the campground, and figured I followed them. But the place was a zoo, swarming with people. It looked like Woodstock. After employing my rusty Chinese to help them get their site lined up, I filled out the paperwork for a site of my own before having a princess attack. There was going to be a party at the nearby beach, the campground manager told me, and I could get food there. I imagined myself staying up late again, sleeping on the hard ground, being awakened by loud and drunken German partygoers and walking two hundred meters every time I needed to pee. Crumpling up the form I had just filled out, I asked the manager where I could find the nearest hotel. After all the trials I had been through today and functioning on piteously little sleep, I figured the least I deserved was a decent night’s sleep.

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