Peace with a Price

A half-hour bus journey took us to Neckargemünd where P’s car was parked in order to escape Heidelberg’s exorbitant parking rates.

A quick drive around the region brought us to the hilltop town of Dilsberg, where unfairly spectacular views of the hills could be found in one’s backyard. Originally a roman settlement, and now a village with regularly held medieval festivals and plays in the ruins of the citadel, we walked its undulating perimeter in a half-hour in the scorching heat.

P took us through winding roads at a rather alarming speed mostly on 4th gear without gearing down on her 8-year old VW golf, whizzing past warning signs drawn with a variety of animals on them.

An unexpected turn of the weather yanked the temperature down a blessed 10 degrees, and brought a hailing thunderstorm down nipping at our heels – at the very time we were supposed to visit her family for dinner.

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Ursula and Heinz Baberowsky looked like any typical Pensioners who liked sitting in their garden in summer and taking about anything that can interest them. The only problem was that only Ursula spoke slowly, and clearly and Heinz said everything with an unclear, difficult Swabian accent, even though he vehemently denied any association with Swabia.

“We just bought a Medi-Gym bicycle trainer,” Ursula proudly announced, asking if I would like to try it, to which I tried to decline politely.

“I will try it,” Heinz strode forward and got onto the bike, and spent no effort cycling on the machine that did all its rotations for him. “You know the Bundestrainer of Bayern München? What’s his name?”

“Klinsmann,” I said, thinking of new appointment from this coming season onwards.

“No, no…the physiotherapist…his name! His name?”

“What’s he got to do with this?” asked his wife rather irritably.

“Ja…what has he got to do with this anyway?” P asked.

“Uses it for training,” said Heinz proudly.

I found myself rather amused and comforted by the odd familiarity they had with each other as they launched into topic after topic with the rapid-fire German that I am still unused to, as Heinz and Ursula took verbal charge. As a retired engineer, Heinz’s questions betrayed him, as he perked up only when it came to topics that were related to technology, aeroplanes, football, and electricity.

“Why are you saying ‘ok, ok’ to everything?” Heinz suddenly demanded of P.

“This is called ‘active hearing’,“ P retorted.

Dinner with them was at an Italian restaurant down the road, and as we sat in some darker, romantic corner of the place, I was asked all sorts of questions about the country I come from as the Italian waiter bustled about.

“Italian waiter who went straight from speaking Italian to Swabian without learning standard German,” Heinz observed. At the corner of the restaurant stood a stack of postcards with that very same Italian waiter singing into a microphone, and offering his services for parties.

We passed this same restaurant the next day during the actual road trip down the meandering Neckar, that took us in between the border of Hessen and Baden-Württemberg, driving through both valleys and peaks that is the Odenwald forest, down to Mosbach and back.

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P navigates with an expert hand (even though she denies any expertise with a car), and her certainty with the roads prompts me to ask her about growing up in a small village like Wiesenbach, 4 km off Neckargemünd, and her social work done in the surrounding region.

“Do you prefer living life in a small village or in a large city?” I asked after going through a particularly small village that stood sleepily along the road.

“The people who grow up in large cities want the quiet life of the country, and those who grow up in a village want the more exciting life.” P answered matter-of-factly. “I need the entertainment – the theatre, the cinema, or a place to meet with friends. Look,” she pointed to the elderly people taking care of their gardens in front of their homes, “there are hardly any young people here left anymore.”

“Don’t you miss the familiarity and the camaraderie that the neighbours provide?” I persisted in asking.

But to P, the anonymity of the city is clearly the more attractive option. The alleged frank abandon that comes with living in an isolated locale might just prove to be short-lived when the intruding nosiness of the neighbours robs this freedom and quiet – and turns content quickly into discontent.

There I sat in this green paradise, suddenly so keenly aware of this peace that comes with a price.

The Exasperating City

An attempt to wash clothes and hang them out to dry on the balcony was interrupted by P’s neighbour, an aged couple whose constant quarrels mirror the melodramatic Korean dramas. The shifty-eyed man spoke in a choked manner, accused me of eating pizza the night before, lectured me about the necessity of owning beautiful plants to put along the balcony (as his wife had done), before finally ending the conversation with the phrase “I’d like to get to know you better”.

P and I lowered the shades on the balcony not long after.

I cannot seem to stop taking photos of Heidelberg much to my own annoyance, as such an action allies me closer to the quintessential Japanese tourist than I care to admit. But every angle of Heidelberg and the Neckar river cajoles an attempt to capture the ‘perfect shot’ and in frustration, I take more, only to delete them later when something looks less than perfect.

There is both artistry and monotony in the Bergstrasse towns (the mountain road of the south-west in Germany). The fine architectural wonders of the circular, cobbled-stoned medieval Old towns amidst the winery landscape does inspire awe and appreciation, but it probably is not too long before you wonder if they are a tad bit too alike in their structure and overall feel.

Planning day-trips out of a place was never so difficult, even when aided by a map, or by suggestions made helpfully by P. Stuttgart and Baden-Baden were initially on the list of must-dos and must-sees, but something always stood in the way – either the trip by train was too expensive, or the main train station was too far from the central, or the journey time was way too long.

“Speyer, Weinheim…or maybe even Karlsruhe,” says P as she looks through the leftover travel brochures she has of Heidelberg and the surrounding regions. “They are all very nice places, if you want the quaint small town feel.”

Her helpfulness was paradoxically exasperating, and soon, the list of towns grew from 2, to 6 or 7.

“Mainz!” She proclaimed rather excitedly after I had returned from a shower. “We have always talked about places in Baden-Württemberg, but have never quite considered Hessen.”

By then, I had the additional and ridiculous choices of the Bergstrasse towns (the German western mountain road) – Karlsruhe, Weinheim, Mainz, Ladenburg, Speyer, not including Baden-Baden and Stuttgart which had been my original choices.

The quick and dirty answer is that Stuttgart, won at the end of the day – I resigned myself to spending a fair bit on the Intercity train that covered 92km in 45 min to Stuttgart, and was given fleeting glances of the Baden-Württemberg landscape of hills, vineyards and quaint, isolated towns. What began as a ‘stud farm’ a long time ago is now Stuttgart, the royal seat of the Mercedes-Benz. The large, rotating Merc logo rides high on the top of the main train station, and points the way to Königstrasse, the long pedestrian mall.

Aided (or hindered) by a choleric small-mindedness, I made my determined way through the pedestrian mall uphill to Karlshöhe which my perennial Lonely Planet promised one heck of a view of the hilly city, passing along the way, 2 Germans practising Tai-Chi, housewives, quarrelling couples and lonesome retirees. P came back from work, eager to know where I dragged myself to in the end. Mannheim was next, she declared.

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Mannheim, in contrast, displayed industrial sprawl. A mere 15 min away from Heidelberg via the S-Bahn, P and I somehow ended up in the Luisenpark in front of the TV-tower after taking half a boat-trip down the body of water. Fat fish with open mouths swam up to the boat and ducks that paddled nearby were our constant companions. A great reprieve from the afternoon heat, the time spent in the park was nonetheless disconcertingly retro.

The unchanging is many times lauded, but I have yet to make my mind about this one that seemed to have stayed in the 80s for good.

The Fly-ing Welcome

The toilet-sized flies are annoying, particularly in summer. They flit in and out, announcing their arrival with loud, stereophonic buzzes. The smaller ones are green, with spindly legs, seem to have a penchant for landing in my drink. I go berserk the moment they land on my skin.

A flying welcome to Heidelberg.

I landed in a clinically silent Frankfurt Terminal 2, only to find out that the real action takes place (the trains and the buses to Strasbourg/Mannheim/Heidelberg) in Terminal 1. So I rushed to Terminal 1, expecting to catch the Lufthansa Shuttle to Heidelberg, only to find that it was not the big bus that I expected, but a tiny mini-bus that was fully booked by random people. The pinkish, rotoundish driver asked me in high-pitched German if I had a reservation, and thought my name was ‘San’.

When I said no, he then curtly told me that I needed to wait another hour for the next shuttle before waddling away.

Met some irate Germans waiting for another Airport shuttle to Strasbourg, and was unexpectedly regaled with a barrage of complaints that they had bottled up since 2.5 hrs ago as they waited for a bus that never arrived. In desperation, I saw (or rather, God provided), yet another shuttle to Heidelberg by a private bus company that charged exorbitant rates. But we hit the Autobahn the whole way. Cars go mad on it – need I say more?

Thankfully Petra and I still recognised each other when she picked me up. The place that she has is way bigger than the one she had in Coburg when I visited her, and in some conspiratorial fashion, told me that she knew the landlord and had somehow arm-twisted him into giving her half the price of the apartment smack in the middle of the city.

Indeed, this lovely town is worth it – one only has to share the cool romance of this town with 3 million other visitors here, the Japanese tour groups being the notorious trigger-happy, hat-wearing culprits. Surrounded by green hills, a large, imposing castle dominates the rolling skyline (doesn’t every town boast in some sort of medieval castle ever?), and the Philosophen Weg that brought me uphill was thankfully quiet in the escalating heat of the summer morning.

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Petra came back after a half-day’s work, and brought me to the other side of the Neckar river, and wisely advised to simply take the historical funicular (Swiss technology, she says) up from Kornmarkt to Königstuhl (the highest point), before walking down to the ruins of the Heidelberg Castle while going easy on the legs.

I was hesitant to go up by the funicular (foolishly wanting some more exercise) until I saw the steepness required of the potential climb while struggling the whole way down on a knee that was still more or less injured. The trek down from Königstuhl was incredibly vertical and I took the chance to remind myself that I was more or less in some sort of ‘forest’ until the ruins of the Castle a couple of hundred meters down peeked through the trees.

The trip to see the romance of the ruins and hear of its grand history is almost christened a pilgrimage of sorts by trigger-happy tourists, yet seemingly besmirched by the locals as they jog by without batting an eyelid.

The view is however, admittedly breathtaking.