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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wine Tasting in the Sultry Summer

The narrow road wound its way through the verdant rolling hills and quaint, picturesque villages of the Saxony-Anhalt countryside. At times, this thoroughfare was ample enough for two vehicles—some of them load-bearing trucks—while at other points, particularly in the towns, in had scarcely enough room for one.

The square houses of these small towns came right up to the road, as a result of having been built in a time when the largest traffic conceivable consisted of a beast of burden and a cart with wooden wheels. As we breezed through these towns in a sleek, German-built automobile, I was occasionally able to glance into these dwellings and glimpse a hand-crafted wooden table or vintage porcelain wares. Some of these structures were extremely well-maintained, while others had exposed bricks, stones, or even support beams. In the centers of the villages, houses had been built consecutively and sharing a common wall, lending themselves to the “classic European” architecture and style that I had come to expect while dreaming of my travels on the continent.

My companions for the day were Marcel, his wife Nancy, and their youngster. (Marcel is Madlen’s older brother and my former coworker, who is mentioned at the end of the previous post.) We were on our way to one of Deutschland’s wine-producing regions, located in the heart of the Saxony-Anhalt state. Some of the wineries are the former monasteries of centuries ago, and thanks to their thirsty and ingenious monks, present-day Germany enjoys its beer (and to a lesser extent, its wine) prestige. The car drove up a green hillside and past the blooming grapevines while Marcel explained that most vineyards have been planted on south-facing slopes so as to bathe the grapes with as much sun as possible. Our destination, Thüringer Winery, lay among the gathering of structures at the top of the hill. We hurried into the cool, air-conditioned tasting room, a welcome respite from the unusually hot and humid summer day.

The German wine tasting experience is a bit different than ones I have done elsewhere. There was no “flight,” where I was guided through a sampling of specific 3-8 wines that were chosen for a structured “wine tasting.” Instead, I was presented with a sheet of all the wines produced by Thüringer—totaling around thirty styles and/or grape varietals. Fortunately, this was not Marcel’s first rodeo, and he informed me that we were to pick and choose which wines we would like to taste, and at the end, buy a bottle or two of our favorites. I happily acquiesced, and owing to my friend’s direction (there were many varietals I had never heard of before), I was soon the owner of a couple of bottles the ones I had liked best—a dry rosé and an unfamiliar Müller-Thurgau.  

After our first stop and before our next one, we paused for lunch in a small countryside town. (Then again, in the German countryside, what “towns” are not small?) We pulled up to a restaurant built onto the side of an aging—or so I thought—watermill. It turned out that the owner of the watermill is Marcel’s business associate; he was kind enough to give us a brief tour of the grounds and its machinery. To my surprise, inside the old brick walls was a factory full of 21st century wheat-processing technology, including a modern watermill machine to generate power. To finish the tour, the proprietor gifted us a five-kilo bag of fine wheat. We said our thank yous and made our way next door to the restaurant, lunching on traditional and tasty local fare of meat and potatoes.

 The watermill as seen from the restaurant’s outdoor patio.

Finishing our meal, we used extra spatulas from the kitchen to pry us off the booths, as we had sweat ourselves into the seat material while eating. (I suppose that part of the historic “authenticity” of the watermill and attached restaurant was the lack of air conditioning.)

The post-lunch digestif was at Pawis winery, built on top of a nearby hill and on the site of a medieval monastery. What the monks of long ago began, Pawis winemakers gladly and artfully continue today. Fortunately for us, the winery was not as “authentic” as our lunch spot, and we slowly sampled not a small number of their craft products in the cool air of modern technology. The tasting was of the same format as the previous one, but I enjoyed the wines here a tad more, as did Marcel. We readily purchased a few bottles and walked around the scenic grounds.

Unfortunately, the other inebriated tourists had left the backdrop by this point.

The satellite makes for a nice juxtaposition of centuries.


This wine tasting experience, as well as many other of my Deutschland adventures, are entirely a product of the generosity of my dear friends, Marcel and Nancy. Thank you, to both of you.

Stay tuned for Prague!

Full-smiles can be a challenge in sweltering heat.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The First Days

After fourteen hours of international travel, I blundered out of the small airplane and into hot, humid air of a Bavarian summer day. As the plane unloaded us onto the tarmac, all of the passengers were required to board a little shuttle bus so that it could transport us the actual terminal that was literally less than fifty feet away. Too tired to try and make a quip about the absurdity of such procedures, I obliged and was soon (thankfully) collecting my one checked piece of luggage.

A little confused by the complete lack of needing to declare anything to customs, I made my way out of the baggage claim area and into the warm embraces of my expectant friends, the couple-to-be. Madlen, Georg and I were soon catching up, reminiscing, and talking about their wedding the following day and honeymoon thereafter.

The afternoon progressed through their pretty city of Nuremberg, situated on top of the Pegnitz river that weaves its way around the hills, into other waterways, and finally into the Black Sea. When there was no lush greenery to do so, old remnants of castle walls and fortified ramparts lined the sides of this slowly flowing river (see the last photo of previous post). They took me up to a castle-turned-hostel atop of the highest hill in town, host of a great view of the city:

The last photo of Georg while still technically “single.”

Afterwards, they asked a question that hardly needed to be posed—if I cared to accompany them to the local “beer gardens” to enjoy a cold, fresh sample of their local pride. I quickly and kindly agreed, though it was all I could do to hold my travel-induced narcolepsy at bay. We lounged around on beach chairs in the grass, sipping the delectable, master-brewed Tucher hefeweizen while staring up at the twilight summer sky through tree branches green with fertility.

Nuremberg evening.

Their wedding was held a thirty-minute drive away in an old, modest, stone-walled church that quite nearly made up half of the countryside town’s real estate. Madlen and Georg stayed outside, and I entered the church with my guitar and proceeded to set up. The wedding priest and I began to attempt communication so as to determine when I would actually play the guitar during the ceremony; however, this was no easy task as the bride and groom were unavailable, and he spoke about 4 words of English and I spoke about half that in German. Fortunately, some other bilingual attendees came to our rescue and we resolved the issue.

While I understood very little of what was spoken during the 45-minute service, it was the pretty and quaint affair that the couple had wished for. (After a little initial stage fright, I gave my instrumental rendition of Damien Rice’s “Cannonball.”)

Mr. and Mrs. Plettner.

Following the wedding, we drove the five minutes to an inn in the neighboring village, where the reception was held. When everyone had arrived, a curious event took place: the couple put on leather gloves, grabbed a hacksaw, and began cutting their way through a log.

Try explaining this scene without context.

Apparently, an old German tradition calls for the newlyweds to saw a log in two, demonstrating that it is the first of many works they will complete together throughout their marriage. After a few minutes under the summer sun, the Plettners were dabbing the sweat from their foreheads, proudly standing over the wooden halves that lay at their feet.

The rest of the day was filled eating, drinking, and merrymaking. As I sat at a table later in the evening, contentedly not sober, I pondered upon the curious nature of life, or rather, the serendipity of it. The fact that I sat there at that moment at a wedding in Bavaria was the product of a relationship that began seven years ago. (In 2006, Madlen’s older brother decided to move from Germany to Santa Barbara for six months, to do an internship with the tour company I worked for at the time. Inspired by her brother, three years later she and Georg did the same, and we became fast friends over kayaks, bicycles, and barbeques.) Similarly, my imminent move to the Balkans has come about through friends I made while living in Chile. Who knew that people I befriended in one faraway corner of the globe would be the reason that drew me to another?

The trivial details or chance encounters that happen to us now (or that have already happened to us) may yet have a bearing on how our own lives will unfold in the future—after all, you cannot rule out possibilities because you do not even know the future that is brewing right under your own nose at this very moment. Who knows, shaking that stranger’s hand at a birthday party tomorrow (or last month) may well have a part to play in your life, big or small. It may be the catalyst to a new career, to travel, to a spouse, or to a hand infection; we do not know and life is too short and there just isn’t enough hand-sanitizer to restrain ourselves from these life-changing handshake moments.

The more people you meet, and the more travels you embark upon, the more new and different horizons will open themselves up to you. My own travels and the lives of those around me attest to this idea—there is no telling how it will all turn out in the end.

So, here’s to the serendipity of life:

Saxony, the site of my coming travels.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Setting Off

At 41,000 feet above the icy waters of the North Atlantic, a sudden nosebleed is the least of my problems. It is just the most pressing one. I am an hour and a half out from a yet another new start: new friends, new jobs, and new horizons—or so I think. There is no shortage of things that could go wrong and prevent the unfolding of this next chapter in my life, and I am currently pinching my nostrils as tight as possible with bloodied fingers while trying not to create a scene on the crowded aircraft. At just over a leggy six feet, it can be a little challenging to escape the clutches of an airplane seat while doing one’s best not to bump into and wake up everyone around you in the process. Several disgruntled passengers later, I had cleaned myself up in the bathroom, and returned to my thoughts regarding my impending change of life events.

And this was before the person in front of me reclined their seat.

At this point, my imminent future depends upon the benevolence of some German immigration official who I will stand before and plead my case. I do not believe in any sort of destiny or fate; if the official lets me in, I was fortunate with my persuasion, if not, I could very soon find myself deported from Deutschland and on a flight back across the Atlantic to the US. It is as simple as that—no need to involve cosmic powers guiding events here on earth.

This possibility is the case because I have a one-way ticket to Germany, and not too much proof that I am going to eventually leave the country. I will, if all goes according to plan. But with some kind of copied "promise to hire" from a school in the Balkans as my only proof, I am not so sure at this point. A German tourist's visa was not an option as it is fairly contingent on your bank account's balance for the past three months; mine has resembled that of a teenager's savings from a once-a-week paper delivery job for about as long as I can remember.

Speaking of which, if all goes according to (haphazard) plan and I am allowed into Germany, my fate is still uncertain. I could quite frankly be sleeping on park benches very soon, and if I am lucky, getting meager under-the-table wages from some hostel or fruit-picking job.

But before any of that, however, I have got to make it through my guitar performance at the wedding I will be attending in two days. I have essentially—but not completely—learned a couple of songs for the event, and the happy couple-to-be will choose which one they like best. Hopefully, I will not ruin the reflective moment after the vows with a half-learned medley. 

I also know about 3 words of the language of the Balkan country I am moving to—none of which is appropriate for an audience with grandparents, children, or frankly outside of a bar. Informing my opinion of said country is the culmination of an hour or two skimming Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, and the CIA World Factbook websites.

Perhaps this lack of planning would be viewed as altogether blasé and irresponsible for a man of twenty-seven, and for others, it would be the assurance of "failing." Rightly so, for many folks: all of this would be the making of a failure—for them. Failure has never been nor will ever be an option for me—it motivates me to survive, succeed, and exceed. Granted, I have never moved somewhere new with so little preparation and pocket change, but being dangled so closely over the fires of homelessness, poverty, and isolation only motivates me more. I will be all right in the end; I know because I always have been.

The following blog entries will attest to this, and so much more, as I once again make my way into the unknown.

Travel: the art of downsizing.

(The previous entry was largely written on the plane before reaching the European continent. At time of publication: I was let into Germany without so much as a question—literally—and  apparently my guitar performance was not half bad as I was asked to play at another wedding in September.)

Enjoying a Bavarian summer day.