Finally, our summary of our Germany trip. In brief, it was fun, full of family, castles and playgrounds. We had an extra travel companion for our journey, the cute little stuffed monkey called Mr. Row, the brother of Amelia Row, who visited us in Chicago. Mr. Row is sometimes mentioned in our summary. It was good to have this little monkey with us to break the ice with all the other kids, who all seemed to like him. We were documenting our trip with Mr. Row to send to his family in Pennsylvania, and in many cases, we realized we did a better job documenting his visit with photos than our own.
Day One (Sunday): Munich, Olympian Village, Chinese Biergarten
Our flight to Germany was good, and the most notable events were that we hardly slept, Otto enjoyed "Rocky Balboa" (the only movie option), and Max got to sit in the pilot's chair at the end of the flight. Oh, and upon arrival, we learned our luggage did not make it on the transatlantic flight. Oops.
After filing our lost luggage report, we met our hosts and chauffeurs, Ralf, Paul and Jens. These wonderful friends got up early to meet us at 7:30 in the morning. They came in two cars, in order to accommodate all the luggage that we did not actually have. We drove into Munich, looking at the sights along the way. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday, the last day of March 2007. The weather could not have been finer for our entire visit, and the first day was fabulous. We noticed the flowering trees and bulbs everywhere we went. The grass was all so green, Munich was at least a month ahead of Chicago. It was positively delightful. Ralf told us that Munich is often called the northernmost city of Italy, because of its weather.
We drove to Jens’ house, where his family--Doris, and two children, Henk (6) and Pina (6 months)--was waiting with a tasty breakfast, Swabian style, which is to say, fresh rolls from the bakery, cheeses, sliced meats, with the added bonus of olives and tomatoes and some other salads. Coffee with foamy milk. Cocoa for the kids. It was a very nice introduction to our day, especially considering that it was still the middle of the night for our bodies; Chicago is 7 hours behind Germany.
Well fed and ready for adventure, we headed out to the Olympian Village, where the 1972 Olympics were held. The Olympic buildings are famous for their design, which was inspired by dew-covered cobwebs. You can get a great panoramic view of Munich and the Alps from the top of the Olympic Tower (Olympiaturm), which is also used as a radio and TV broadcasting tower. We took the elevator to the observation deck. We took in as much as we could before Otto got worried and wanted to go down. There was a very nice park where all the kids played and were able to get a bit acquainted.
It was so interesting to see Max and Otto play with Henk. They didn’t even need a common language--Henk doesn’t speak any English, and although Max and Otto understand German, they don’t usually speak it, so mostly they just found ways to play that did not require them to discuss anything. I guess that’s how kids play much of the time anyway. Max and Henk were fast friends. They held hands as they zoomed down a big swerving slide, they dug in sand, they found sticks. They rolled down the big grassy hill. They picked flowers.
After we were finished with our visit to the Olympian Village, we went to a Biergarten at the Chinese Tower in the English Garden. It is apparently one of the most famous beer gardens in all of Munich. The huge crowd confirmed this. A brass band played oompa music (including some American standards). While we were standing in line to get curry sausages, pommes frites and Radlers (half beer and half lemonade), we heard the two men behind us discussing Max’s shirt. Max was wearing a Wishbone shirt, and it turned out they were from Chicago and knew the restaurant.
There was a great playground at the beer garden, as well as a vintage carousel, which Max, Henk and Otto rode a couple of times. The animals and carriages were all hand carved and very intricate, and the paint was definitely worn. Nothing moved up and down, just turned around on the carousel. It was really beautiful.
We went back to Jens’ house, where everyone talked for hours. The boys fell asleep on my lap, and we finally all retired to Ralf’s house at around 9. I was amazed we all stayed up as late as we did, considering we had only gotten about an hour’s sleep on Saturday night.
Day Two (Monday): Munich City Center
We went into Munich with the train and tram, in order to see a bit of the city. The kids loved to see the trains, which were blue in Munich. They were so clean and ran so smoothly on the tracks, very different from the rickety CTA trains we are used to.
We walked through Viktualienmarkt, a daily food market in the center of Munich. We looked at all the brightly colored Easter eggs that were displayed at many stalls. Ralf bought some for us all to enjoy. Max picked out some radishes from one of the vegetable stands. People everywhere carried their baskets or cloth bags to take home their goodies. It’s much more common in Germany to carry your own bags--to these outdoor markets, to the grocery store, or wherever you go. Many stores charge a small fee for each disposable bag they provide, and reusable cloth bags are often available for purchase at the register. It makes so much sense to charge for each bag, making the buyer more likely to consider bring his/her own bags. It was also just so cool to see all these different bags and baskets each person had--in some way, they made a statement about the carrier, traditional woven baskets with handles, bright colored cloth bags with metal handles, simple cloth bags with pictures screened on them.
And then, hungry again, we went to the Hofbräugarten for coffee for the adults and ice cream for Max and Otto. This restaurant has an indoor play space for kids with climbing equipment, pretend play, and craft areas, and it also had an outdoor playground next to the beer benches. In so many ways, Germany was a more family friendly environment. There were so many restaurants with playgrounds attached, and beer gardens in general are just such a wonderful relaxed place to enjoy time with friends while the kids happily play. I wondered aloud that there weren’t more places like this in the US, and Ralf said that most of the clientele at these restaurants were families, that having a place to have a good meal and also entertain the children was very common there.
Back at Ralf’s house, our luggage had arrived. Max was so excited to see his own clothes. He immediately opened up his suitcase and put on his rocket cape.
And then it was dinner time. Ralf made Bierkutschergulasch and Semmelknödel (beer coachman’s goulash with bread dumplings) a classic Bavarian dish. It was “lecker,” which is to say, delicious. Jens, Doris, Henk and Pina joined us for dinner, and the kids enjoyed playing together some more.
After dinner, the boys built a tower with these really wonderful blocks, thin rectangular blocks. It got taller and taller, only Max and Paul could reach. Then only Paul and Martin. Then only Martin. Then Max said, “I wish we had someone even bigger. I wish we had grandpa here. He could build the biggest tower in the whole world. He is sixty.”
Day 3 (Tuesday): From Bavaria to Swabia
Ralf made Weisswürste for breakfast. Weißwurst (literally: white sausage) is a traditional Bavarian sausage made from very finely minced veal and fresh pork bacon. As it is very perishable, weißwurst is usually prepared early in the morning and eaten for first or second breakfast--there is a saying that the sausages should not be allowed to hear the church bells’ noon chime. Weißwurst is usually served with sweet mustard and accompanied by Bretzeln and Weißbier. And we did indeed enjoy them with all three of those things.
Our stay with Ralf was coming to an end. We packed up the luggage we had only opened the day before (and yet somehow managed to strew about all over the room).
After breakfast, Martin picked up the rental car. Our car was very impressive: a Renault Laguna, which has a diesel engine, a key card and an ignition button instead of a key (!) and a Navigation system build into the dash (!!). It was so great--we weren’t expecting the navigational system, and in fact Ralf had kindly bought a great street map for Germany for Martin so that we could navigate ourselves around. But this very handy computer let us just plug in the address and kindly told us where to go. (“Nach recht, bitte.”) It was another beautiful day, and we left Bavaria for Martin’s native Swabia, driving about two hours to Tübingen to visit Armin, Gabi, Benedikt and Florin.
When we pulled up to Armin’s house, Ben, his 11 year old son, was playing outside. We had stayed with them on our last visit to Germany, when Ben was only 6, and I recognized him immediately. Not surprisingly, he did not know who we were at all. Armin and Gabi’s apartment is in a great condominium type of building, where many families live. Of course, there is a great playground as part of the building, and there’s a creek running outside and a nearby wooded area to explore. You can walk just a block to a few really nice restaurants, a bakery, and other essential shops, and it’s an easy bus ride into the city from their house.
We brought in our bags, and the kids all played with Playmobil, which seems to be the most popular toy in Germany, at least at the houses we visited. It was not surprising, as we watched how much fun all the children had with the pretend play: knights and castles, pirates and ships, construction cranes. What’s not to like?
Day 4 (Wednesday): Tübingen City Center
After another delicious Swabian breakfast of rolls and cheese, we took the bus into Tübingen. Armin and Ben came with us. We got off at the river, just where a row of brightly colored houses are located. We saw this same view on many different post cards.
We walked around the city and did some shopping. Much to the boys delight, we went to some toy stores, and Max and Otto picked out small wooden swords. They were really interested in knights (they brought their knight costumes in the suitcases for wearing to castles).
Everyone tried on sunglasses.
We had lunch at a German fast food restaurant, called Mr. X.
And then we walked up the hill to the Schloß Hohentübingen, now a part of the University of Tübingen. There were very nice views of the city from the top of the castle. Otto fell asleep, and Max and Ben had a "sword fight" with the new swords. Max's sword broke when it was swiftly hit by Ben's sword, after only about 2 minutes of play. Luckily, the toy store was still open, so we walked down the hill and replaced it.
Then we went to a really cute cafe for coffee and cake. Max's hot cocoa was served with a small piece of chocolate, called "kinder," which he really liked. He was so excited to learn that they sold this sort of chocolate everywhere in Germany.
Back at Armin and Gabi's, we played with their pet bird. And then the boys ran onto their back porch to shoot their new water pistols. Luckily, no one was below. The view from their balcony is of other buildings like theirs, full of color. It looks very different than the new construction we see around Chicago. I like it.
Day 5 (Thursday): Burg Hohenzollern
We spent all of Thursday at Burg Hohenzollern, which is about 15 minutes from Tübingen. It was a big hike to get to the castle (you can drive partly up the mountain, but then you have to walk the last steep bit). We enjoyed the views of the city below and the castle above as we approached. It was not a very sunny morning as we first approached, and the castle looked a bit moody, with its sharp tower tops pointing up above the trees. But when we reached the top, the skies were blue and the castle looked much more inviting.
The castle was relatively new, compared to many of the other castles in Germany. It was actually the third castle to be built on that site. The first was destroyed in 1423, the second was built in 1454, but taken over and eventually became a military base. The third was built in the 1800s.
We took a guided tour of the castle, but it was only in English, and Max and Otto were quite restless, so we had to break away from the group. Everyone most enjoyed the armor room, and we spent a long time looking at all the different knight’s attire.
At the gift shop, both boys picked out black knight's helmets, made of cardboard. They had giant feathers sticking out of them. Martin and I already began to imagine ourselves carrying them onto the plane to go home. But the boys were very excited.
We stopped for ice cream and water in a cute town and played by the fountain.
Day 6 (Good Friday): Ruined Castle, Paragliders, and Oma
We said “Tschüss” to Tübingen and drove to the Burgruine Hohenneuffen on the edge of the Schwäbische Alb. There we met many of Martin’s friends from university for a sort of reunion.
The Burgruine Hohenneuffen is a ruined castle, which was quite a different experience than our trip to the more recent castle the day before. Max and Otto wore their knight costumes and helmets. And luckily, there were lots of children to play with. Rainer and Moragh were there with their three kids (who speak English and German, since Moragh is Scottish). And there were a couple of other kids from the friends we met, one of whom didn’t really speak English but was quite taken with Mr. Row. She carried him around and showed him the sights.
Again, it was a beautiful weekend, and there were lots of people taking advantage of the day. We all sat at the long tables and drank beer and lemonade and ate ice cream and German-style pizza. There were horseback riders, and Otto and I went up close to pet the horses. Otto was still wearing his knight or “Ritter” costume, and the riders suggested that the “kleine Ritter” should get to ride, and then of course, Otto really wanted to do just that and was disappointed when they rode away. He says he wants to ride a horse, or have one. Perhaps we can manage the former.
We saw at least a dozen paragliders. They were climbing the steep hill near the castle, and jumping off, gliding around the castle area, and finally landing in a grassy field below. The kids were all fascinated with it, and so was I. We watched them for more than an hour, just soaring around the castle.
And then we all walked down the hill to leave the beautiful ruin, the lovely day. We said goodbye to all of Martin’s friends and got in the car for the relatively short trip to Martin’s mother’s house in Stuttgart. She met us, helped us unload the car, and then we all had coffee and cake.
The boys were very excited to see their Oma.
Day 7 (Saturday): Stuttgart City Center
We went to a nearby flower shop and picked up some potted flowers to take to a grave of Martin’s former boss and friend, Klaus Czikmantori. He died several years ago at a relatively young age, apparently of a hernia. Martin had worked for him for many years at the Stuttgart Christmas Market, one of the larger and more famous Christmas markets in Germany, and at the Volksfest. The Volksfest is the second biggest festival in Germany, after the more famous Oktoberfest. Klaus ran a sweeties stand, for sugared nuts and cotton candy, chocolate bananas and the like.
We didn’t know exactly where the grave was, but we looked around the cemetery for a while and read the headstones. Max has been asking about cemeteries recently, so it was interesting for him to visit one. This was such a beautiful cemetery, with very well kept grave sites. Each grave would have an actual bed, bordered with granite or stone of some sort, and within that bed was a very well-maintained garden. Martin told me that it is very common to see families tending the gardens, but that it was also common to hire a gardener to maintain the site and keep it looking beautiful. I have never seen a cemetery like this, but Martin said that this is how the cemeteries are in Germany. The cemeteries are owned by the city, or the community, and you lease the plot for about 10 to 15 years, and then after that if the family and friends do not renew the lease, then it is removed, unless it is of someone with historic status.
We went downtown by tram to the Schlossplatz (Castle Square). We joined the crowds who were shopping, eating ice cream, sitting in the sun. And then we walked around a bit more. We took a quick look into the new Kunstmuseum (a modern art museum).
Not far from there is the Altes Schloss (Old Castle), the center of historic Stuttgart, where, on the swampy site in the middle of the 10th century stood a “Stutengarten,” a stud. Here we saw the oldest building in Stuttgart, which is now a museum.
Max ran around a statue of Friedrich Schiller. There is a statue of Schiller near the zoo in Chicago where we always play. I told Max it was the same man, and he said, "but he doesn't look the same--the other one looks like a president." Max thinks any statue dressed in 18th century clothing is a president, since we've seen a few statues (not to mention a few coins) with presidents in this dress. The statue of Schiller in Stuttgart was dressed in robes and had a ring of leaves on his head. Max did not believe it was the same person.
We walked across the square in front of the Rathaus (town hall) where the bells in the tower rang right when we walked by. Max continues to be delighted by clocks, so we spent quite a while looking at it. And then we caught the bus back to Oma’s house.
Day 8 (Easter Sunday): Easter Bunny Visits, Oma's Birthday
Yes, the Easter Bunny visits children in Germany, too. He hid all kind of chocolate around the apartment, but he also brought tooth brushes, cars and Playmobil figures. The boys thoroughly enjoyed the hunt for the items, which took them all over Oma’s apartment.
We spent the morning playing with their new toys. And then we had a lovely breakfast, eating some of the colorful Easter eggs.
After breakfast, we went to the Weissenburgpark and Teehaus. The Art Deco pavilion was built in 1913 in a park on the south hills above Stuttgart. It was quite a climb to get up to the top of the hill, but the view was fabulous. We sat on the terrace of the pavilion, overlooking the city, and toasted Annelise’s birthday with a glass of Prosecco for the adults and Ice cream for the children.
And of course, there was a very nice playground for the kids, partway down the hill. The boys loved the spinning carousel, but it made me a bit dizzy.
Went home for coffee and cake. Uroma Klärle came by to celebrate with us. We had to remember to call her Uroma (great grandmother) instead of Oma (which of course, she was called until the boys were born). We often forgot, and the boys were confused, trying to keep straight who we meant.
Day 9 (Easter Monday): Piano Playing, Bismarckturm
Oma played the piano, and both boys watched in fascination. Oma showed Max a little bit, and he played along with her, mostly matching the rhythm, but that also involved anticipating the rhythm, which was cool to witness. Oma was very excited about his piano playing, and it was fun to see them interact.
We took a tram up a really steep hill, and then walked a bit more to the top. We walked through the woods and then played in...surprise, a playground. It was a fantastic park with a really long curving slide, a long cable swing, lots of places to climb. Sand to dig in. The kids played for a long time.
And then, to be sure we really got a good view of Stuttgart, we decided to climb up one of the many observation spots in the city. We headed for the Bismarckturm. It was another great walk up to the top of the hill, and then we climbed up the tower steps to see what we could see. It was a truly splendid view.
There was, not surprisingly, another little park next to the tower, and the kids enjoyed playing there until it started to get late. We headed back into the city to get our bus, and then we met Oma at Babmbus, a Vietnamese restaurant. There, we met another family with an American mother (originally from Michigan), German father and bilingual child. The family lived in Stuttgart and spoke German as the family language. They were the reverse of our family. It was interesting to think what it might be like if we did live in Germany.
One thing that definitely stuck out as we visited Germany was that Germany is much ahead of the US in terms of caring for the environment. They have windmills, solar power, better programs for garbage disposal. As I mentioned before, people bring their own bags to the stores. There is far less packaging on products than there is in the US.
I was very aware of how wasteful we can be in the US, even if I am often guilty of it myself (buying single servings of applesauce and snack crackers, or forgetting to bring my bags in to the grocery, leaving lights on in rooms we are not in, or wasting food in general). We're trying to be better, more aware.
It seems the US would be a perfect place for more windmills, as we have so much more wide open land that could be used for it. As it was, we drove past these enormous windmills, which stood up well beyond any buildings you could imagine: tremendous, beautiful landmarks.
And speaking of driving, the landscape was so different from Illinois, with so many curving roads, steep hills. I tend to get motion sickness, so flat Illinois is good for my equilibrium, if a bit boring on the eyes. Germany does a nasty bit to my sense of equilibrium, but it’s a feast for the eyes, so I guess it all balances out.
Day 10 (Tuesday): Uroma (Great Grandma) Klarle’s Birthday
We packed up our stuff (yet again) and drove downtown for a little shopping.
We had been eating hard boiled eggs in egg cups many mornings, and Otto picked out some egg eating accessories.
We went to Uroma’s apartment to celebrate her 90th birthday. She had made two cakes, both of which were delicious. We had coffee and congratulated her on the big day. The kids were very excited to play with some of the toys she had around, Legos, Playmobil and a piano.
We left Uroma’s drove 18 km to Aichtal-Grötzingen to Rainer, Moragh, Patrick, Marc and Elena. The kids ran out to meet us, which made us feel very welcome. The kids had already seen each other at the Burgruine Hohenneuffen, and they were glad to be reunited.
We all had dinner together, and then headed to bed.
Day 11 (Wednesday): More Playgrounds
We had a relaxed breakfast with Moragh and kids. The kids played in the backyard on a great playhouse and sandbox all morning.
After lunch, we went on a little walk to see what lovely parks they had in their area. We tried out all the different equipment, and there was a small standoff between our children and some of the other kids at the playground involving a playhouse atop a climbing structure. The older boys who were in the structure wanted all of our kids to leave them alone, our kids all wanted a chance to get in the house. No one budged in their stance, until finally we left for another playground.
Rainer met us by bike when he got home, and we all went back for dinner.
On a side note, Moragh fed us lots of produce: salads with every meal and tomatoes and other yummy vegetables, and I was so delighted. We had too many days of bread and cheese and meat, and Moragh’s delicious cooking was just what we needed.
Day 12 (Thursday): Ritter Sport, Lake of Constance
We spent the morning with the kids, Moragh made a yummy lunch of traditional Macaroni and Cheese, hoping to make something familiar to the boys. It was so thoughtful of her. The boys were happy to see it, but they still didn’t eat very much. Moragh wondered aloud how they were surviving on eating so little.
Elena carried Mr.. Row around all morning, and she took him to her room to play for a while. The kids played in the backyard, and finally we said our goodbyes. Patrick, Marc and Elena chased the car down the street as we drove away, waving and shouting their goodbyes. They are really such sweet children, and I’m so glad we stayed with them.
The factory that makes one of our very favorite chocolate bars, Ritter Sport, was located just a short drive from their house. We stopped in to tour the factory, which has a little museum about the history of chocolate, and the making of its own chocolate, as well as a store. We sampled some chocolate, and then we had a snack at the cafe before we headed for the car again.
We drove toward the Lake of Constance to see Martin’s brother, Stephan and his wife, Petra. Martin’s mother and Uroma were already there. Martin’s cousin Ruby was also there (from Boston) with her two children, Erin (8) and Chloe (5). Chloe was immediately taken with Max, and he certainly did not seem to mind. After a while, we heard her ask him if he liked girls, and he looked confused and said, “yeah.” As we were getting ready for bed, he told me that “I think Chloe likes me a little bit too much.” But again, he didn’t really seem to mind.
We all headed out to a nearby restaurant, which was just a short walk up the hill. There was, of course, a nice playground there for the kids, and as an added bonus, there was a deer farm, where we stopped to feed the deer some grass.
Day 13 (Friday): Meersburg
We woke up, and Max immediately wanted to know when “the girls” would join us. We had breakfast with Stephan (Petra had gone to work very early that morning). And happily, the girls did arrive, and all four children ran off to play together.
A bit later, we went into Meersburg. Meersburg is the home of Germany's oldest castle, built in the 7th century. Of course, we had to visit. The boys enjoyed the armor room, but they thought the dungeon was too creepy to explore.
We had a small snack at the cafe there, where you could sit outside and watch the ferry going from Meersburg to Austria.
After we finished at the castle, we walked down the cobbled steep streets into the lower part of the town. We shopped a bit, buying a few souvenirs. One word for what is hot in Germany right now: FELT. We bought felt jewelry, felt coasters, felt wallets for the boys.
We finished our visit to Meersburg with some very fancy ice cream, served with all sorts of decorations. Max’s ice cream looked like a little Pinnochio, with a cone for a hat and a tiny cone for a nose, and Otto settled for vanilla ice cream with LOTS of sprinkles. And then we walked back up the steep hill to head back to Stephan’s.
Everyone had gathered back at Stephan’s for pizza. Martin’s cousin Carrie arrived, as did all four of her children, who live in various cities in Germany and France. We were a very international gathering. Max and Otto played with Chloe and Erin, and later, we all watched "Matilda" together. It was a very nice night.
Day 14 (Saturday): Uroma’s Party
We spent the day getting ready to go home, packing up our stuff, and a short trip to the post office, which was located in a store. Conveniently, the store had Playmobil, and Onkel Stephan had promised to buy the boys something. They looked over the shelves at all the options, and finally settled on something.
In the evening, it was time to party. We had a champagne toast to Uroma outside, and then we moved inside for a fabulous feast and celebration of Klarle’s 90 years. Max and Chloe continued to explore their friendship. They held hands, and Chloe kept asking Max to kiss her on the lips. He seemed confused but still liked the attention.
Later, all the kids were dancing and singing on the porch, and Max performed a song for them. Apparently, they were playing “American Idol” or something similar, and Chloe was taking on the persona of the really tough judge and told Max he was no good. This hurt him very deeply; it was the first time he had performed "publicly" like that, and he felt pretty cut to the bone, not to mention his heart was breaking because this was his little girlfriend. His whole body started to shake and his head too, and then he screamed something, and finally, he and I retreated inside to talk about it. He then wanted to go tell Chloe that she hurt his feelings. She looked at him with her beautiful big blue eyes and said, “I’ll never do it again, Max.” It was really interesting to see how they communicated together.
Uroma partied until 2:30 in the morning; we can only hope to have so much energy at her age. We were in bed before midnight, knowing we'd have to leave early the next morning. It was so much fun, and we really appreciated Stephan and Petra’s hard work to put the party together.
Day 15 (Sunday): Departure
We had packed the car the night before, and we got up early and left for the airport. As usual, time ran out. We didn’t get a chance to mail any of the post cards we had already written and stamped. But the flight went out on time, the kids had a great flight (they both stayed awake for almost all of it, watching movies, talking to each other, looking out the window). And then we were home.
Okay, if you read all of this, or most of it, or even part of it...wow. ;)