August 14, 2015

Distant Roads: The Wanderer…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


The old hunger for voyages fed at his heart….To
go alone…into strange cities; to meet strange
people and to pass again before they could know him;
to wander,… across the earth — it seemed to him
there could be no better thing than that.

—Thomas Wolfe

They had told me before I ever got over there, Sabrina and Maryann. The conference is over on Saturday. And we got you scheduled to speak to a group of students on Monday afternoon. That means you have a full day to just do whatever you want. What do you want to do? And I told them. I’m on your home turf, in Germany. I mean, that’s about as astounded as I’m going to get. It doesn’t matter to me, what you plan for me on Sunday. You decide. I’ll be happy with whatever it is.

And they both had their suggestions. Sabrina mentioned the Fish Market in Hamburg, as something I might want to go see on a Sunday morning. Maryann claimed there was an old castle somewhere close that might be interesting. And it seemed to me that my friends were fretting a bit, about the small details. I’m laid back, when it comes to such things. I really am. It doesn’t really matter to me at all, what you choose for me to do on a Sunday, when I have free time. Whatever you figure out is fine. I know you’re busy. I don’t want to interfere too much, in your lives. That’s what I told them. And I meant it. And then I didn’t worry much about it.

And it came sliding in sideways, out of nowhere, the thing we actually did. One more option showed up, when I wasn’t looking for it. And that option, that offer came from Melanie Grundt, my student chauffeur, at the conference. When she told me she had been born and raised and still lived in what was formerly known as East Germany, I got all interested and focused. Asked all kinds of nosy questions. She answered them all cheerfully. And by the time the conference was over, she came up with the suggestion. Maryann backed her up. Why don’t we just head on over to East Germany on Sunday? Melanie will be glad to take us in her car. Show us around, guide us. I jumped at the offer. Yes. That’s what I wanted to do. Go see the small villages and the back country of East Germany with a native guide. There was no question in my mind that I’d get to see things most people don’t ever get to see, when you come from where I come from. I was pretty excited that night, looking forward to the next day.

And the ladies arrived at the hotel, right on time, the next morning at nine. And we headed out into the heat of the day. Beautiful clear skies, with a few puffy clouds floating aimlessly. Melanie’s car was a tiny little thing, almost new. And it had air conditioning. Something we badly needed, in the heat of this day. I settled up front, riding shotgun. Maryann sat in the back. And Melanie stick-shifted the little car around and right through town and out. And soon we were zipping along narrow highways through the German countryside.

There was a lookout tower on this side of the Elbe River. That would be our first stop. We parked and walked the steps up the hill to the tower. Then up the stairs, zigzagging back and forth and up and up. Up beyond the treetops, and there was a very nice viewing platform. And it was just breathtaking, the view. On this side of the river, the West, were all kinds of hills and little mountains. And farmland, too, and villages. On the other side, miles and miles of vast rich farmland. And it was mostly laid out flat. Melanie pointed out this village and that. And she pointed over to the area where she was born and grew up. After fifteen minutes or so, we headed back down. Into the car, then, and through the village over to the Elbe River, which we crossed in a small ferry boat.

We drove off the ferry onto the land that was formerly Communist East Germany. It always gives me a chill, to enter a land like that. To know, to grasp, that this land was a prison, where you were brutally murdered if you got caught trying to escape. I felt the ugliness, the brutality of all that, down deep inside.

And Melanie talked as we drove. Here, close to the river, no one was allowed. It was called the Totenzone. The Death Zone. If you were caught here, you were just shot. No questions asked. You were dead. The Russians strung up a high mesh fence, all along their side of the river. Miles and miles and miles of it. And watch towers, too, stabbed into the skies, every mile or two. The soldiers patrolled the fence, manned the watchtowers, and patrolled the river in gun boats. And she told me something interesting, too. The soldiers were all Russians, there along the river. There were German soldiers in the army in East Germany, but they weren’t posted along the river. Even the Communists had enough sense to realize that it wouldn’t work to command Germans to kill Germans, along the border.

And I looked and gaped and just asked questions. The narrow ribbon of a highway curved along. And Melanie pointed off, to our front left. That’s where her village was. Where she grew up. And she pointed out into the vast, rich fields. Somewhere in there was an invisible line. When she was little, she went playing in those fields, often. And once, she unknowingly crossed that invisible line. The soldiers didn’t shoot at her, just around her, to warn her back. And so she moved back, closer to the village and her home. I asked. Were you scared? And she shrugged. “Not really. They were just warning me back. They weren’t going to kill a playing child.” Wow, I said. You sound so lackadaisical about it all.

The villages in the former East Germany are a bit used and run down, now. I saw many deserted and empty store fronts. After reunification, the young people fled the barrenness of their world. And migrated to the towns and cities of West Germany, where the jobs and lights and the beautiful people were. And Melanie told me. You can buy land, you can buy a small farm in East Germany for 20,000 Euros. It’s just run down, and you’ll have to fix up the buildings. The German government has tried and tried to lure business and industry into the former East. It’s just hard, to get anyone to commit to building a factory over there.

And I asked a hundred questions of how it was, when she was a little girl. And I soon grasped. The people may have lived in some fear, but they sure weren’t paralyzed by it. She had many, many happy memories from her childhood. Life was just what it was, and sure, it was hard sometimes. Her family took the milk and eggs from their little farm, and turned it in at a government station, where they were given coupons for food in exchange for their produce. And once a year or so, she said, there were bananas, there in the grocery store. And everyone went and got bananas. And enjoyed them very much. But overall, from what I heard, she and her family did not starve, far from it. They existed under a tyrannical regime, but they survived quite well. And despite all the wrong imposed on them by the vile false god that is the state, they have some real good memories of it all.

We drove through Melanie’s little village, then, and stopped by her house. The place where she was raised by her grandparents. About twenty hectares in size, the farmette has the classic German farm building on it. One long structure. The house on one end, then the barn in the middle, then hay storage on the far end. It was an old structure, in half decent shape, needing a little bit of repair here and there, on the roof. Melanie lives there with her attorney husband, her two young daughters, and her aging grandma, who is fading into the twilight after a recent stroke.

Early afternoon, now. And Melanie had told me, way back up on that lookout tower. Somewhere along that highway over there, there used to be a village. And she told me the chilling story of what happened to that village. Back just after the Communists took over, and before the fence was built along the Elbe, this little village was quietly rebellious. Its people offered to guide refugees across the river, over to the West. And they did that. Somehow, of course, the authorities discovered what was going on. And one day, a host of soldiers descended on the village. They ordered all the people out of their houses. And then they bulldozed the village into rubble, and buried that rubble in the dyke over by the river. The village people were deported to a destitute land far away.

I had never, never heard of such a thing before. I mean, the story. It’s not something you’ll ever know, unless the locals tell you and show you. And just that close, the story was lost to all of history. By the time of reunification, the village and its name had all but been forgotten. Terrified locals from other villages denied ever knowing of such a place. But the Germans were cleaning the dyke, down by the river, back in the 1990s. And suddenly they unearthed great piles of manmade rubble, the remnants of houses and barns and tools and lives. All buried, and all but forgotten to all of history. Just that close, it was. But now the light of day shone on the horrendous deed that had been unleashed on all those innocent villagers, more than a generation ago.

And we set out, on the way out. The village was not that many kilometers from Melanie’s home village. And we approached, where she thought it was. A few old ramshackle houses stood, swaying. I guess they didn’t quite get them all bulldozed. And we crept on through, then, to the other side of what used to be the little village of Vockfey. And there it was. A little shrine in a three-sided hut. With photos of how it used to look, from where we stood. And there was a wall, with old hand tools mounted on it. Old shovels, rakes, hammers, hoes. Just the heads of the tools. But far more chilling, off to the side stood a little monument. A little pyramid, made from the rubble that had been unearthed out by the dyke. Bricks, mostly, from houses and barns. Chunks of this and that. And there, up front and in the open, a large black tombstone. I mean, when the Russians leveled the place, they leveled even the grave stones. They tried to make the village as if it had never been. And just that close, they got it done. But not quite. And now, here I stood, beside this pyramid, a silent witness to the absolute evil that is the state.

Vockfey Monument

We cruised the back roads, then, just driving through the country side. The land was rich, and dark, like blood. And slightly rolling, like the farmland of Lancaster County, I thought. By midafternoon, we were heading back to the city. Back to my hotel room. One more night, that’s what I had there. And the rains came down hard that evening, and cooled the heated earth. And cooled my hotel room.

Monday. My last full day in Germany. I had told Maryann. I’m speaking to a group of students from 2:00 until 3:30. After that, I’d like to get on the train and head west and south. Toward Switzerland. She checked out all the schedules, and nothing really seemed to work out that late. And she told me. “Why don’t you sleep on my couch tonight? I’ll have a little cookout, and have some friends over. We can get you on a train to Zurich at 8:00 the next morning.” Well, if that’s what has to be, then that’s what has to be, I said. I kind of wanted to get moving on. But I couldn’t, not until my last speaking gig was over. And that afternoon Sabrina picked me up and took me over to the high school where I was scheduled to speak.

They don’t call it “high school” in Germany. They call it Gymnasium. I think there are several levels. Students test out to the level best suited to them. And the teacher met us with a smile. There would be around 150 students. She had about six different passages she wanted me to read. I notched them all out, in my book. And she and Sabrina asked. “Can you force yourself to talk a little slower? These are young students, and they may have a harder time keeping up, if you speak at your normal speed.” Sure, I said. I’ll try.

We sat up front at a little table. I was introduced. Sabrina had my iPad and she walked around the perimeter of things and snapped a lot of pics. The students looked to be around sixteen or seventeen years old. A real young audience, right there. I’m always a little more tense and nervous, talking to a younger audience like that. Who knows what their attention span is? And I was supposed to talk for a good hour. That seemed like an eternity, in my head. A whole hour, talking to teenagers? Oh, well, it’s too late now. You are here. Relax, and just dive right in. And I did, forcing myself to speak slowly. And read slowly. And the students seemed to be paying attention.

I talked and read and talked and read. And talked and read some more. And that little engagement right there turned out to be my longest speech, ever, that I can remember. I talked for right close to an hour. Then I stopped and placed the book on the table. OK, are there any questions? I asked. If you have some, I’ll be happy to answer them. If you don’t, well, we’re going to dismiss class real early today. Because I’m done, otherwise.

After some initial hesitation, a student raised his hand. He had a question. And then they came, as I had hoped they would. For the next twenty minutes or so, I just talked to that young audience, by answering their questions. When I was trying to describe how it was, leaving home for the first time, I asked. How many of you are seventeen? A few dozen hands went up. OK, I said. That’s how old I was, when I got up and left in the middle of the night. I think it sank in a little bit, what I was saying. More questions, then. And then it was over, my final talk on this trip. The students clapped politely for a minute or so, then got up and left. I felt drained and relieved at the same time. Well, I’m glad that’s over. I thought it went OK, I told Sabrina. She agreed.

Sabrina drove me over to Maryann’s apartment, not far from the college. Melanie was there, and Maria showed up, too. And we just sat outside in Maryann’s little back yard, like old friends. Sabrina, Maria, Melanie and Maryann and me. We sat around and drank beer and talked about the conference, and how it had all come down. Remembering. “It’s so much work,” they told me. “So much to schedule, to look after.” Well, if you ever have such a thing again, I’m always delighted to show up, I told them. I’d sure like there to be another time, whether it’s a conference or just me lecturing to students. Either way, I’m OK with it.

And soon Maryann served us the meal she had cooked up. Steaks. Salad. Bread. And it was all good. By early evening, the guests had left, and I stretched out on the couch in Maryann’s living room. Time now for some sleep. Tomorrow, I would leave this place. It was fitful sleep that came to me that night, but it was sleep.

The next morning just before eight, Sabrina showed up. My ride to the train station. And there was a bit of drama, right there at the end. My iPhone didn’t work over there, so I didn’t carry it with me. Packed it in my bags, or so I thought. That morning, as I was packing everything up to leave, I realized I had not seen my phone in a few days. So I checked out the pockets in my Messenger bag, where I could swear I stuck it. Nothing. I checked everywhere, in all my bags. No phone. I hollered to Maryann. I can’t find my phone. I wonder if it’s still at the hotel. And she got right on the phone, bless her heart. And I caught snatches of what she was asking, and what the hotel clerk was telling her. “Yes, from room number 315,” I heard her say. And then. “Someone will be stopping by very shortly to pick it up.” I gaped at her. Do they have it? “They do, at the front desk,” she told me. “I mean, I wonder when they were planning to make any calls to us about it.” It doesn’t matter, I said. We can stop by and pick it up on the way to the train station.

Sabrina smiled in disbelief, when she heard what we had to tell her. My phone was at the hotel, yet. It was no problem, to stop by and pick it up on the way. Sabrina looked at me, and she said, “Your Guardian Angel is sure looking out for you this morning.” Yes, I said. Absolutely, he is. I could just as well have left without my phone, and things would have been a whole lot more complicated. I hugged Maryann good-bye. Thanks for all your gracious hospitality. Thank you for putting me up on your couch. Thanks so much. And then we took off for the hotel, and the train station, Sabrina and me. And her teenage daughter, Emily, in the back seat. She was going on a field trip with her class that day, Emily told me.

I remember how it was the last time I was fixing to board a train on my own, all by myself, there in Germany. It seems so long ago. And this time was nothing like the first time. This time, I was very calm and laid back. Other than that big red suitcase I had to drag along, nothing got to me, much. I found my boarding platform, and waited in the gathering heat of the morning. Trains whooshed in and out of the station. I waited patiently until the right one came along, slid in and stopped. And I poured through the door with the crowds, dragging my luggage. It was all OK, though. No panic at all, inside me. I had been in this place before. I stashed the big old suitcase in the luggage rack at one end of the train car. And settled in, then, for the trip to my next connection. I was heading to Zurich, from there, to Fribourg. The French-speaking section of Switzerland, where my friends, the Ribauds, lived. And I kept an eye on the German landscape outside as it flashed by. I didn’t have to drink it in voraciously, not like last time. But still, I wanted to see the land I was passing through. And I did.

I had messaged my friend, Carline Raboud, a few weeks earlier. And she had messaged back. Come around on Wednesday. We have a room for you to sleep. This was Tuesday. I figured to get to Fribourg, and then get a room for the night. Then, tomorrow, Carline would come and fetch me. And we’d go from there. I felt a little bad, being a bother like that. But, hey, when you got connections to people in a farm family in Switzerland, you might as well make the most of them. They can only say no, if it doesn’t suit them to see you. The train sliced through the ancient landscape, right along. Around midday, I walked to the dining car, and ordered a large bowl of stew, a water, and a beer. Zurich was coming up, right soon. That evil city, that harbors a lot of bad memories for me.

The train was running late, though, as late afternoon approached. And I got a little nervous. I was supposed to have twenty minutes to change trains in Zurich. That time got whittled down, more and more. And by the time we pulled in, I had less than five minutes to drag my luggage downstairs, over to another platform, and up again. I simply grabbed the big old red suitcase. Forget about rolling it along. Carry it. Carry all your bags. I made it back upstairs, after stumbling on the concrete steps on the way back up, and skinning my knee. Score another one for evil Zurich. I made the train with about a minute to spare. And off we went, for the hour-plus ride to Fribourg.

One thing was definitely different this time around, from two years ago. I noticed it right away. That was wireless internet, or Wifi. Back in 2013, it was hard to find, anywhere. You were lucky if your hotel was wired. During my stay at Leuphana last time, I just checked in once a day, at the University. My hotel never had free wireless. Well. Since then, I guess Maryann and Sabrina told the hotel people. If you want us to board our guests here, you better get free Wifi. And it was right there, this time. But I was astounded to find it on the train, as well. The signs were there. Free Wifi. I had some issues, linking on for the first time. A nice German passenger across the aisle offered to help me, when he saw the trouble I was having. And I got linked on, as the train snaked on through the German countryside.

And I linked onto The site where you can reserve a hotel room, just about anywhere in Europe. And I checked out the hotel in Fribourg where I had stayed last time. Hotel du Faucon. Reserved a room, for one night. And after I got off the train there, I remembered where it was, about four blocks away. I trundled my luggage down over the cobblestones. Last time, that French taxi driver has ripped me off by pretending the hotel was far away, so he could charge to take me. No such thing this time, though. I walked into the lobby shortly after seven, and checked in. The nice lady even spoke a little English, and we got along better than I expected we would.

My room was in the second floor, facing the main street outside. The thing about European hotels is, you can open the windows. Crank them wide open. You can lean on the sill and just view the street life below. Americans would be horrified at such a thought. And at the liability, if some stupid guest leaned out too far and fell out. That night, I opened the window wide, and leaned out and looked. And then I went outside and walked about, and ate at an outdoor café. As darkness settled in, I returned to my room, and just enjoyed the bustle and flow of the street life below me in the window frame.

hotel du faucon

The next morning, I slept in. Carline would arrive around midmorning. I dragged all my stuff down, settled with the front desk lady, and sat on a chair in the tiny lobby, by the open door. And after a while, here she came. My good friend, and as lovely as ever. Carline. We chatted as we walked to where she had parked her car. And I mentioned. I haven’t had coffee, yet. “Oh, we have a Starbucks, here, now,” she informed me proudly. OK, Starbucks it is. We each ordered a medium coffee. Six and a half francs each. Wow, I said, handing over the money. That’s kind of wild. Carline laughed. “You’re in Switzerland, now,” she said.

And we caught up as we walked to her car. She’s still in college, although out now for the summer. She worked nights, at a local hospice. I apologized. I had no idea you’re working all night, every night. Now I’m going to keep you from getting your sleep, and you have to work tonight. She waved that off. “It’s not a problem. I’m dropping you off at Jean-Pierre’s house this afternoon. I’ll get some sleep then.” And she asked. “There’s a big castle, not far from where I live. I thought we could go there, and I can show you around, and we can eat lunch there. Would you like that?” Absolutely, I said. And off we went then, out of the city, and onto the narrow winding roads into the impossibly beautiful Swiss countryside.

I’ve mentioned it before. Everything in Europe is so old. As was the vast castle we visited that day. It was a huge complex, with a little village inside the walls. And all kinds of shops and restaurants. We walked all around the place, then settled in at a restaurant. And I remembered a dish from when I was around last time. Rosti. A Swiss dish of fried potatoes, covered with a slab of ham, topped off with an over-easy egg. I remembered how delicious it had been last time. Can I order it here? I asked. “Of course,” Carline pointed it out on the menu. A mere 23 francs. Oh, what the heck? We both ordered the dish, and it was every bit as delicious as I had remembered.

And after the meal, we meandered around, ending up at Jean-Pierre’s house. My old friend, the preacher man. We had met and hit it off last time I came through. And he had asked me to speak a few words, in his church. Which I did, through Carline, as the interpreter. That was all pretty wild, the first time around. I was all upbeat and excited just to be there. This time, I was way more calm and settled, as we drove over to where Jean-Pierre lived. We knocked on the door. He was upstairs in his study, so it took a few minutes for the man to open the door and greet us. He hugged us both. His crinkled smile was exactly as I remembered.

And he invited me to his back patio. Carline left, soon, to go home and take a nap. She had to work tonight. And I sat down outside in the back with my old friend. He brought me a beer and poured one for himself. And we just sat there, the two of us, and caught up like old friends do.

We talked about a lot of things. About how the whole world seems pretty unsettled right now, and what that might mean. It’s a pretty scary thing. And I told him. You look just like you did, back when we met, in 2013. Back when you took a day off, to take me to where I needed to go, to see the castle where my ancestors were tortured and killed.

You look good. I’m the one who looks older, now. I got mostly gray hair, in two short years. And I’m heavier. I didn’t pay much attention to anything at all, health-wise, last year. I was walking down some real dark roads, back then. And it all caught up with me, this past March. I was in the darkest place I’ve seen in a long time.

I felt young, the last time I was through here. Young and exuberant. I don’t feel young much anymore. Or exuberant, either. But still. I have kept walking. And now, I’m not where I was, back there in that dark place. But I sure remember how it was. Vividly.

He smiled his crinkled smile. There was no judgment in his face. We sipped our beers, and just talked about things. The turmoil out there, in the world, all around. And he spoke, then. “You have been to dark places. You see what’s happening in the world around you. You will be able to help others, to speak out, to show them the way, when the time and place is right.”

Well, what do you do with such a proclamation from such a preacher man as that? Over the years, I’ve met a few preachers like that, here and there, who made all kinds of predictions. You will do this, and you will proclaim that, and you will lead people to the Lord. And I gotta say. I’ve never felt the slightest hint of any such calling, ever. I got nothing much to say to anyone about anything, except what it is to walk free.

But when Jean-Pierre spoke, there was something different going on, right there. I don’t know, I told him. It will never be any conscious talk. If people read what I write, and it helps them, well, I’m OK with that. I will speak my voice, wherever I am, with no pretensions. The Lord can take that wherever He wants to, I guess. I’m sure not looking to be anyone special. I won’t speak to people from above. I’ll only speak to them face to face and eye to eye.

After three hours of good company and good conversation, I looked at the time. It was evening. And I told Jean-Pierre. I need to go. And he offered to take me over to the Raboud farm. We drove over the ribbons of roads, through the scenic countryside. Farmers were out and about, in their fields, baling hay, mostly. And on the roads with large wagons loaded with large hay bales. Carline and her Mom and sisters were waiting for us in the house. Jean-Pierre walked me up, and chatted for a bit. We shook hands, then, and hugged. And he told me what he told me last time we parted. “Give my greetings to your people.” I will, I promised.

We feasted that night on home-grown steaks, potatoes, and salad and wine. The Raboud family welcomed me to their home and their table. It was interesting, as always, at least when I’m there. French is the native language in the area. The children speak French and German. And Severine, one of the daughters, married Daniel, a guy from Mexico. So there’s some Spanish talk going on. Of course, I speak only English, and a smattering of rough German. So it was a great mishmash of languages and voices, all around the same table. I visited with the parents, Carline acting as translator. We feasted and laughed. A large time was had by all, I think. And I thought about it later. Sitting around the table in fellowship, eating the evening meal, is a universally joyful thing the world over, in every culture and every language.

The next morning, soon after eight, Carline dropped me off at the local train station. She’d checked out the schedule. I would go back to Zurich, and catch a train at noon. For Vienna, Austria. That’s where I had decided to fly back out of. I had never been there. It’s a real old city. So I booked my return flight from there. Carline checked with the clerks in the small train station. Then we walked down the ramp and up on the far platform. “Take this train to Fribourg, then switch there for Zurich, then switch there for Vienna,” she instructed me. I’ll be good, I said. We hugged. Thanks so much for taking care of me. I’m sorry to keep you up. You’ve been working all night. “It’s not a problem. I’m going home now to sleep,” she said, smiling. The poor girl looked exhausted. I thanked her again. And then she left me.

The train shuddered and took off. I arrived in Zurich with over an hour to kill. So I stood off to one side and people-watched. The Europeans are a little different than people in this country. Somehow, it seems they dress a little sharper. And they use public transportation, like trains, a whole lot more than we ever will or have over here. And soon enough, I wandered off to find my train. My Rail Pass was for first class, so I looked up front for the right car. First class in trains isn’t the equivalent of first class on planes. I mean, the seats are maybe a little softer, a little nicer, but you sure don’t get babied around like you do on a plane. I settled in, and the train took off. This was an eight-plus hour trip. I would arrive in Vienna at 8:30 PM. I had no problem with that, though. What better way to see the European landscape, than from the windows of a train? I couldn’t think of any.

And it was a pretty wild ride, all the way through. I saw the foothills, the baby Alps, leaving Switzerland. Huge mountains. But still, babies. And it was a little freaky, sliding right on over into Austria. The train sliced through a very narrow valley, first off. And I gaped at the houses and villages hanging onto the sheer walls of the mountain cliffs. On and on we pulsed, and the valley gradually widened, closer to what I have seen before.

Darkness was settling as we pulled into the Vienna station. And the rain was settling in, too. From the train, I had booked a room at a nice hotel about a mile from the station. And what with the rain and all, I sure didn’t want to drag my luggage anywhere. So I approached a taxi in the long line of taxis waiting outside. I pulled up the address on my iPad and showed it to the driver. It’s not far, I said. “Yes, I can take you,” he replied. I don’t know what it is with taxis and me in Europe. Last time, I got ripped off in Fribourg, when my hotel was within easy walking distance on a sunny day. And now, the driver started his meter, and we edged out slowly into the traffic. Left at the next light, then down a few blocks. That’s where the hotel should be. But no. Road construction, all of a sudden. The road was closed, leading to the hotel. The driver mumbled and punched at his smartphone for an alternative route. I didn’t say it, but I thought it. You’re in this part of town every day. You should have known this road was closed. You probably knew, and now you’re just killing time and adding miles. We took wide detour, around several blocks. He pulled up right outside my hotel. Eight Euros, to ride four blocks. I mean, who can complain about that, especially in the rain? I paid the man and thanked him.

After checking into my room, I went out walking. The rain was gone. And I walked up three or four blocks, to the main drag. A wide, mall-like setting, lined with shops on both sides. All the way over to the old city. That night, I strolled only a few blocks, then stepped into a bar for some food and drink. Tomorrow, I would walk further down.

Vienna is an old, old city. And I asked the nice lady, at the desk at the hotel. And she told me where to walk and how far, to get to where things get real interesting. I thanked her and headed out. I have no idea of the actual directions. To me, it seemed south and west. But I got back on that main drag, and just walked and walked and walked.

And off to my left, then, there loomed some big, elaborate structures. I had walked past a real nice bar, and was kind of hungry to go back and see what it had. But I approached those structures, on my left. Absolutely magnificent architecture, in the massive, massive courtyard. And then I walked up to the doorway of one of the buildings. It was a museum. Kunst Museum. I’d never heard of it before. I was intrigued. So I walked through the front door. There was no line, getting in. Not at that time of day. I paid my 14 Euros, and took my ticket and walked in. I had no idea of what it all was that I was walking into.

The next five hours, the rest of the afternoon, I walked in awe through that amazing place. To do real justice, you’ll need three or four days. I ambled through an amazing display of Egyptian artifacts. Mummies. Caskets. Stone monuments. And then on, through a maze of Greek and Roman monuments. Busts of leaders. Citizens. Women. Children. All in chalk-white original stone. I reached out and touched a few of them, when there was no one around. I couldn’t help myself.

And then I stumbled into the rooms of art. And I’m talking room after room after room after room. Real original stuff. Including a couple of rooms that housed the originals of Peter Paul Rubens. The premier Baroque artist of his time. I simply stood and gaped at his massive, wall-sized paintings. This was a production, what was going on here. And it was real stuff. I had some sense of what I was seeing, the rarity of it. And I reveled in it all.

Peter Paul Rubens

And by late afternoon, I was out of there. Heading back, to my hotel. And about halfway there, I stopped at a sign I had seen on my way out. Bar and Grill. In English. I was intrigued. And I walked upstairs to the bar. Sat there, on a stool. Can you make me a dirty martini? I asked in English. The young bartender’s face lit up. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I can.” And he mixed me one right up, with dark olives and dark olive juice. It was delicious. And I ordered food, of course. A hamburger. They don’t know what a hamburger bun is, anywhere in Europe that I’ve seen. They stick the burger patty into a sleeve of half-closed bread, soaked in all the condiments. I’m not complaining. It’s all delicious. The burger and the dirty martini were among the best I’ve ever tasted. Both of them were. Which just goes to show how uncouth I am here at home, I guess. But it was what it was.

I meandered back to my hotel, then. And that night, I went to bed early. Because in the morning, at 4:00 AM, I would be taking a taxi to the airport, way out there on the edge of the city. had claimed this particular hotel had a shuttle to the airport. They laughed, the hotel people did, when I told them I needed their shuttle the next morning, early. “We don’t have a shuttle,” I was told. “We can get you a taxi for 40 Euros. It’s a long ride out there, to the airport.” And I was feeling pretty livid at A shuttle to the airport, indeed. You people are all messed up. But I smiled at the hotel person. OK, I said. If that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. Just have that taxi here, right at four. I need to catch my flight.

And it was all pretty surreal, when my alarm went off the next morning. At 3:30. I got up, showered, and packed all my stuff into my luggage. Including the three posters I had signed and dated, back there at the conference. Posters I had just taken, on my own. Maybe I’ll frame one of those sometime, for myself. And maybe I won’t. I sure don’t plan to give a single one out as a gift. It’s just not near as big a deal to me, as it was the first time around. I dragged my bags downstairs, and approached the man at the front desk. Another guy in a suit stood there, talking to him. I’m looking for my taxi, I said. And the desk man waved at the guy in the suit. Here he is.

There’s something about me and taxis, in Europe. They had told me, the hotel people. It’s forty Euros, the half-hour ride to the airport. And I kept a keen eye on the clock in the taxi. It kept rolling right up. This was early morning. There was no traffic, to speak of. And when we pulled up to the airport departure gate, the time clock told me I owed about 32 Euros. I was fine with forty, though. And I asked the driver. What do I owe you? And he told me. “Forty-five Euros.”

Well. Here I was, at the airport, Determined not to miss my flight out, like I did last time. And here was a taxi driver who had my bags in his trunk, trying to rip me off. But they told me it would be forty Euros, at the hotel, I said in broken German. The taxi guy got all animated, all of a sudden, and unleashed a great torrent of words in German. I caught snatches of his protest, as he talked. The bottom line was this, and we both knew it. He was charging me more than I’d been told, because he knew he would never see me again. He was ripping me off, because he knew he could.

I will not judge that man’s heart. I will not do it. He has to survive, however he can. He had a real nice SUV, and he was dressed in a suit and tie. And I tried to imagine, even as we were driving along to the airport. What kind of circumstances is this man in, that he shows up in suit and tie, at four in the morning, in a vehicle like this, to drive me to the airport? I sighed and handed him his money. He smiled and unloaded my bags and wished me a “Gute Reise.”

And from that point, everything unfolded almost perfectly. I had watched my emails carefully all week. My friend back home had applied for first class status for my return ticket. And all week, no news. Nothing. So I checked in as a common plebe that morning. Back to the way it was before. A short flight from Vienna over to Milan, Italy. The only time I ever set foot on Italian soil, right there inside that airport. Maybe another time I could stay longer. And the big old jumbo jet to Newark loaded right on time. Again, back to the sardine section it was for me. I jammed my carry-on into the luggage rack that was too small and too tight. And took my seat in the middle row, by an aisle. And everyone loaded quietly. I looked around in astonishment. Where was the flight orator? The baby, warming up? There was no sound of any. And no orator ever showed up.

The plane took off right on time, for the eight-plus hour trip. I slumped in my seat and conked right out. At 6:30 that evening, I pulled into my own drive, and walked into my own house. And it felt pretty good to be home.

A few housekeeping notes. Maryann emailed me the link last week. My keynote address at the conference was filmed. And now the actual speech was edited. Almost exactly thirty minutes long. The question and answer session will be just as long, I think. That half hasn’t been released, yet. It should be ready in the next month or so. So, anyway, here’s the blog with the You-Tube link, the link to my actual book talk. I guess what startled me the most was my accent. It’s pretty heavy, almost German. I had no idea I sounded a little bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But I do, in places. Oh well. It is what it is, I guess. Take a listen, if you want.

And it’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again. The Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party is just around the corner. Saturday night, next week. I’m looking for probably the biggest crowd, ever. The tenant is friends with the auto dealer across the street, so last year he got me parking privileges over there. If everyone who said they’ll be here actually shows up, I’ll need the space. And if not everyone who said they’ll be here shows up, well, there will be some paring of the guest list for next year. I got people waiting in line for an invite. Just a little warning. If you tell me you’re gonna be there, be there. Because if you don’t show up, you won’t get another chance to tell me that again.



  1. What an interesting experience! I have only flown into Germany one time, enroute to Africa, with no time to go exploring but have always said I need to go visit. One day… For now, I enjoyed very much reading about it, and taking in the stories. It’s hard to imagine a world where you get shot at if you cross lines of play, even if only to scare you away… a world where towns are destroyed for offering help and kindness. But control of the human spirit (and mind and body) is a dangerous thing, and any one of us has the potential to surrender to the wickedness that such a thing is. Thanks for sharing the stories and your experience. I hope one day to go for a visit.

    Comment by Trudy Metzger — August 14, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

  2. My favorite blog so far. Beautiful trip review (thanks for taking us along). Fun to be in your seminar audience. (Nicely executed. Passage choice was spot on.) Can’t wait to hear the question/answer finish. Like I’ve said before, yooou dooo have an Amish accent still. :D Don’t lose it. It’s an endearing quality. Now, if we can just get you to calm down about the dang garage party invite deal. No formal party anywhere has strict rules like yours. You are a self proclaimed anti-rule kinda guy. Throw caution to the wind and just let life happen. Agreeee?

    Comment by Lisa DeYoung — August 14, 2015 @ 10:56 pm

  3. Ira, I follow your blog and I just finished listening to the video about your talk in Germany and have read your blog about your trip. I really enjoyed both. I am so glad your German trip went OK but thanks so much for sharing it on your blog. You have quite a unique journey and I look forward to reading your blogs to see what is going on in your life.

    Comment by Mary Maarsen — August 15, 2015 @ 6:18 am

  4. WOW what a trip you had. I appreciate reading about it. It sounds so interesting and well written. It is a great experience to visit in homes and have a personal tour.

    Comment by Linda Ault — August 15, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

  5. “Watchtowers…stabbed into the skies.” Really like that visual.

    Comment by Maria — August 15, 2015 @ 6:52 pm

  6. So appropriate, so relevant, to review Eastern Germany, held by religiously-atheistic Communist Statists to restraint to the religiously-pagan, pederast National Socialist Statists. What a world God has to manage, all emanating from human hearts (James 4).

    So appropriate.

    Psalm 94.

    Comment by LeRoy — August 20, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

  7. I really enjoy your blogs, Ira. I especially enjoy the ones of your experiences and travelogues when you take trips whether here in the states or aboard. Thanks for taking us along.

    Comment by Doris Hurd — August 31, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

  8. A trip to Germany is on the bucket list. The woman in my life has a cousin in Austria and that’s next door to the Motherland. It would be quite interesting to me to see where my forbear’s trekked from in the 1830’s to start a new life in this great country of ours. A well written article, it takes a lot of courage to go to another country and give a speech and answer audience questions, in my opinion. Frieda to all…..

    Comment by lenny — September 6, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

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