Budapest-Amsterdam River Cruise – Final Chapter

You may never have heard of the “Main River” in Germany.  Compared to the other large rivers like the Rhine, the Elbe and the Oder it does not flow the same way. Those start in the south of Germany and make their way towards the North Sea or the Baltic Sea. The 330 mile long Main River cuts across Germany through Franconia, a beautiful area with gems of cities not to be missed. Canals with almighty locks connect this hardly known river with the Danube. The last part of the impressive canal was only completed in 1992. It provides an international waterway connecting Rotterdam at the North Sea with Konstanca on the Black Sea.

We visited many of the pretty, fairy-tale towns along the Main. Since Scenic Cruise Lines has electrically assisted bikes for more adventurous guests, about thirty chose to ride next to the ship and meet up at the next stop. Arriving in the area of the modern metropole of Frankfurt we again had a choice of excursions. We elected Heidelberg, the oldest and most famous university town in Germany. At one time in my life I had to lecture there, needed to go to a hairdresser, they talked me into a color rinse, and my hair turned out red. RED! I hated it – but it couldn’t be changed until it washed out over the next four weeks. We had also read the fabulous ‘Schellendorf’ series of books by Lynn Alexander, set in Heidelberg. We tried to find the Schellendorf house, stable and other places but naturally did not miss walking up to the old castle ruin which provides an incredible view over the surrounding wine country with the Neckar river winding its way through it.

Mainz is the city where the Main River joins the waters of the Rhine. Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz; the man who invented the movable lettering for the printing process, enabling the mass production of books in 1440. His masterpiece was the first ever printed Bible still displayed in the Gutenberg Museum. Several places in Mainz warrant a visit; the cathedral which looks more like a fort, the medieval Iron Tower, and the art lover surely would not want to miss seeing the Chagall window in St. Stephen’s Church. The history of this city goes back more than two thousand years when the Romans realized the strategic importance of its location.

Another excursion in this area offered by Scenic was a visit to Wiesbaden, in the 19th century one of the most exclusive spa cities in Germany due to many hot springs. Once called ’Aquae Mattiacorum’ was a flourishing Roman city two millennia ago. It still retains the aura of its heyday in the Belle époque. Wiesbaden brings up another memory: I was married there. But that is another story, told in the sequel to my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That.”

Father Rhine! We must have entered it during the night because I do not remember our ship slipping from the Main into the Rhine River. Many poets have written about the Rhine, many songs are sung about it, and many cruise companies offer tours up and down the Rhine River. It springs in Basel Switzerland and winds its way through vast valleys and narrow gaps between mountains all the way to Holland, picking up other, smaller rivers joining it along the way. The best-known one of such rivers is the Moselle. A dangerous turn to navigate the Rhine for any ship is the corner at the Lorelei. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote a song of a beautiful siren sitting on top of the steep cliff, combing her golden hair, singing and causing many a ship crashing, the captains lured by her and not paying attention at the sharp narrow bend in the river.

On both sides of the Rhine remain old castles, most now in ruins with maybe a small part made livable for an owner. Once upon a time they were built by robber barons, catching boats coming up or down the river and collecting fees. We had a historian on board telling the stories of twenty-three such castles. It was funny to watch people’s heads on the top deck swivel from one side to another, trying not to miss anything. I did a bike tour in 1957, and several castles were youth hostels. In the late eighties, we toured the Rhine area in a car, and we stayed in one converted to part hotel and restaurant. The owner was a Swizz man, he invited us for an after-dinner cognac (brandy) drink to enjoy with him. He lived alone and asked us many questions about life in Canada. The next day we noticed he had charged us for the drinks. Some invitation!

Not to be missed along the Rhine is Rüdesheim. Make sure to try a “Rüdesheim Coffee” laced with Assbach Uralt Brandy and sign up for a tour of the unique “Museum of Mechanical Music Instruments.” Rüdesheim is a truly ‘happy place.’

Scenic Cruises has a contract with the “Mark Castle.” We enjoyed a medieval dinner and show as well as being horrified by the room full of torture instruments of the not so good old times.

We sailed by the modern, extensive cities of Boppard, Bonn, Cologne; we had almost a day to enjoy Cologne, and then into the widening waterways leaving Germany to Holland, all the way to Amsterdam. Also known as the Venice of the North because of its many bridges, I’d call it the city of bikes. Highrise parking garages for bikes, bikes, bikes and more bikes. Houseboats along the waterways are beautifully tended with lots of plants and flowers, five or more story buildings all joined along the water, and one wonders how they were built on this watery part of the Earth.

An excursion brought us to an area with windmills, typical for Holland. We had fun visiting a store where the Dutch clogs were made, watching the craft production from a piece of wood to the painting of this footwear. I was reminded of my teen years when a pair of those (unpainted!) clogs kept my always icy feet warm, the only shoes I owned for a couple of years, worn for school, church and elsewhere. Interesting was a place where they made cheese, big wagon wheels of cheese were displayed to age on many shelves. And before you ask, yes, we could watch the process in the making and taste the types of cheese.

Writing about the Budapest-Amsterdam cruise and, despite having done others since, I dream and hope we can do this particular cruise again. There was so much to see and enjoy, and there wasn’t time enough to take it all in the first time. I am sure I will enjoy it, even more, the second time.

Good news: My e-books will be available at 50% off from December 25th to January 2nd on Smashwords:

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Budapest to Amsterdam River Cruise Part 3

Good Bye Vienna, I don’t know if I will ever see you again. We entered a stretch of the Danube through the Wachau with some of the loveliest landscapes you can imagine. We were cruising through vine country. Several vines of this region and even the most famous one, the ‘Veltiner Smaragd’ were served with dinner. We admired ancient castles on mountain tops, and many historic old cities along the river bank kept us all on the top deck. We even passed our first lock. Sometimes the Danube was as wide as a small lake, then again it narrowed, and we could talk to the people walking or biking next to us. Once it went almost around itself, and we could see the same sights twice. We even encountered a cable ferry crossing the river. Several smaller rivers joined the Danube along the way.

Remember the story of Richard, the Lionheart? During the Third Crusade, he was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria and interred in the castle above Dürnstein for three months until the sum of 150.000 silver marks were paid. There is a legend about his faithful Blondel who ‘rescued’ him. I would love to name and tell you about several of the beautiful towns we toured, but then these blogs would go on forever. The mighty Cloister Melk was overwhelming, the affluent Linz and the vast locks before we came to Passau, a city shared between Austria and Germany. The left bank is German, the right bank belongs to Austria. We had to do a self-guided tour in Passau. I attached myself to a German group since I could understand the language. Much better than that hand-held thing… but here I caught the flu, it was going around on the ship, and I was one of the last ones to get it. I stayed in bed for several days and watched a lot of great movies. Even ‘Schindler’s List.’

Luckily I was well enough not to miss Regensburg, one of the highlights of the cruise. There are lots of stories to talk about, but one occasion stays in my mind. We had to pass under a thousand-year-old Roman stone bridge. The wheelhouse was lowered and disappeared but not before the captain asked everybody to leave the top deck. A number of us stayed. Lying down on my back I could touch the underside of the bridge by just raising my hand. I felt the vibrations of the cars driving above me. Sometimes, when the water level is too high, Scenic Cruises has a bus waiting on one side and another cruise ship on the other. They make sure nobody misses anything because of Mother Nature. I could write pages about Regensburg. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is the most northern point of the Danube. Some great locks passed us into a canal, and this later released us into the Main River which flows towards the Rhine across Germany.

Nuremberg, another over the thousand-year-old city, is mostly remembered because of the infamous Nuremberg trials of the remaining Nazis. My first visit to Nuremberg was in the late 1950s when everything was still rubble due to the bombing during WWII. I was astounded how beautifully it had been rebuilt.

Aah, and we visited one of my favorite Places: Bamberg! Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bamberg is a fairytale town, built on seven hills and often compared to Rome. It rained cats and dogs. Everybody wanted to buy an umbrella, and the kind tour guide led us to a Euro-shop, but umbrellas were sold out. He raced us to another, they had stocked up, everybody got one. What a sight it was, seeing the bobbing umbrellas move up a steep street!

An unforgettable excursion was Rothenburg o.d.T., a town still surrounded by the medieval fortifications and four gates. Millions of visitors each year shoot millions of photos, every corner provides another picture worth taking. Don’t miss Rothenburg if you are ever in Germany. It’s the first stop when you are traveling the Romantic Road from Frankfurt after you pass Würzburg south to the two-thousand-year-old Augsburg with many unbelievably pretty old towns along the way and on to the Alps. One of my favorites is Dinkelsbühl with a moat and a high wall around it.

After we passed the Bishop’s seat Würzburg, we had a glassblower on board. He displayed some beautiful pieces.  His name was Karl, and he showed us his art by blowing liquid glass into some incredible forms. When he asked for a volunteer to try it, he had no offers. Karl revealed he takes a soothing drink before blowing, and whoever would give it a try will receive a whole bottle of it. Nobody? I dared and joined him. There was a round of applause, but he asked to wait until after I had blown something to bits. He started, and I took over. He warned me several times to blow slower and more carefully otherwise the bubble would burst. I was making a Christmas ornament. Wow, did I ever enjoy it! I wanted to make it bigger, but he stopped me when it had the ordinary size. He blew his and my name onto it, and then I could roll it in some glitter. And yes, I did receive a whole bottle of his special drink. It was a herbal liqueur in a small sample bottle! A one-time shot. This caused more laughter than applause as I played along and acted very disappointed.

The next day we were in Wertheim where he had a fairytale shop in a very narrow high house. Our tour guide had quite a time to get us to walk on through the pretty town as we had trouble to part with Karl and his sales staff. Lots of dollars flowed into his cash register.

Next time we will cruise from the Main River into what the Germans call “Father Rhine” all the way to Amsterdam.

River Cruising from Budapest to Vienna (part 2)

After checking in to our Scenic “Ruby” riverboat and getting settled in the cabin with the help of our own butler for the fifteen days of the cruise, we joined the other 167 travelers for a briefing. Before we knew it, we had cocktails in our hands, looking for a seat and munching on goodies placed on the tables. The cruise director welcomed everyone and caused a lot of laughter with his own brand of humor. He told us the do’s and don’ts while on the cruise. Lots of people were ecstatic about the fact that the drinks all day and evening were free. I would say, not really ‘free’ because we paid ahead of time, and drinks, excursions, and tips were advertised as included. For the next two weeks, we didn’t need any cash or credit card money. Most of the guests were from Australia (Scenic Cruises is an Australian company), the second largest group was from the UK, then Germany. We were about a dozen Canadians. Seating for meals was open, but the team of eight from our Probus Club in British Columbia stayed together for the dinners. I could tell you funny stories of our and other people – but this blog is not about people but the cruise.

Casting off before dusk, gliding along the (not blue!) Danube, passing under the magnificent bridge between Buda and Pest, by the incredibly beautiful and lit up Parliament Building and Margaret Island, we had a three-course Hungarian dinner, red and white Hungarian wine and musical entertainment with Hungarian folk dancers.

We arrived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, the next morning. A fortress on a hill, castles, many other large buildings, and domed churches formed the magnificent skyline. At one time in history, it had been the Royal city of the King of Hungary. Almost a dozen queens and kings were crowned here. The Habsburg Emperor was also King of Hungary, though not at the same time. Bratislava was thriving during the 18. Century under the Empress Maria Theresia. More Austrians and Germans lived there than Slovakians. It became part of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the great war and the fall of the Empires, and it got its independence in 1993.

At each stop on the way to Amsterdam, we had a choice of three excursions. Here, in Bratislava, we decided to join a trip to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. We enjoyed an impromptu concert at the cobblestone plaza, we wandered the alleys, stopped for an ice cream in a typical Czech restaurant, didn’t understand a word spoken, decided to do the strenuous hike up to the old castle, and we loved the view from up there. After an exciting evening on our floating hotel, we were on our way to Vienna to enjoy Austrian food and wine.

It was great to have two days in Vienna, this world-renowned city; the city of art, music and elegant living. The souls of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and many other famous musicians live on in Vienna; the first waltz, considered a sinful dance, composed by Johann Strauss was danced here. Many years ago, when I was visiting Vienna for the first time, I had met the Grandson of one of the Strauss composers in Grinzing, a romantic part of the city known for its wine drinking cozy establishments. He invited me into the Strauss home for Sunday afternoon coffee, and I touched the Grand piano that two Johann Strauss men had composed on. I was desperate to find my friends again, checked the Vienna telephone book, phoned several Strauss names, I asked many people who might know of them, but to no avail. A city tour is a must; lots of walking in the inner city with lots of pedestrian-only narrow streets, and visiting the famous coffee houses and sampling the many Vienna cake specialties will tire you out. I desperately wanted to see the Lipizzaner horses, possibly a show, but the building was closed. All I could see were posters with pictures to die for. Interesting was the evening concert and ballet offered by the count of Liechtenstein in his Vienna Palais. A champagne reception and little canapés preceded it. If you read my book ‘Forget Me Not’ you know I had met him once before in his castle garden in Liechtenstein. (page 99, story “I own this Joint.”)

 Our highlight on day two was the visit to the Schönbrunn Palace. Every person on our guided tour through the palace was overwhelmed by the art, the richness of the décor and the luxury the Habsburg Emperor family had enjoyed in Schönbrunn, it only being their summer retreat. The extensive gardens were fashioned after the ones in Versaille.  To my surprise, our tour guide pressed her ‘lollipop’ sign into my hands before hurrying off to get our tickets. While waiting for her return, many of the group turned to me with questions, even people from other groups. I tried as well as I could to pretend I was ‘cool’ with being a tour guide.

I would like to spend more time in Vienna, live their lifestyle for a few weeks or months, maybe even during a whole winter with a chance to visit the Burgtheater (castle theater) where many famous actors, conductors, and singers perform. I had met a new man-friend about fifteen years ago, who promised to take me to the Vienna New Year’s Ball. It was almost impossible to get tickets for the ball a year in advance, but he said: “I have my ways.” I bought a stunning evening gown, and it is still hanging in my closet. Sadly, our friendship didn’t develop into what he had hoped. One of Vienna’s winter highlights is the New Years Concert, broadcast from Vienna and now copied by Symphony Orchestra in many cities of North America.

Join me as we continue the cruise through romantic ancient towns of Austria towards Germany in Part three.

Stick your head in the sand – or lose it

A lot of boys had grown up since the last war. They grew up in a country in shambles, they had no jobs, they had nothing to do, and they were restless. And such men-boys get into trouble with street fights over almost nothing, because of hormones, anger, and boredom. Then they heard a new voice, a very loud voice, a voice promising bread and work for all. They listened because they were trying to find a reason to live. They had been like sheep without a shepherd. They had flocked to a new party, a party good for nationalists, socialist, and workers, even the ones without work. Within the new party, they found new hope to build a life for themselves.

“I will rebuild Germany! I will make Germany great again! Bread and work for all.”

Such was the promise. The leader of this party was an Austrian man called Adolf Hitler. A would-be artist or architect if WW I wouldn’t have taken him off his tracks. A disgruntled Corporal after the war; a Wagner opera lover, intrigued with the mysterious Germanic saga, he imagined building a new ‘thousand year Reich’ with proud, strong, blond, blue-eyed people. He saw himself as the architect of it. His incredible oratory talent, and his rousing speeches, assured him of more and more followers and the help of the rich and the aristocracy. It took him a mere ten years to break up the existing democracy of the ‘Weimar Republic’ Germany had become after the last Emperor had abdicated in 1918. The party of Adolf Hitler had an overwhelming vote in the early 1930s which brought him into the government. Through intrigue, he built up enough power to get the then aging Chancellor Paul von Hindenburg, who saw him for what he was, to retire in 1933 and promote him to be elected to run the country. It didn’t take long and the men heard the call to join a new army. Now there were hardly any unemployed men on the streets anymore. To get free clothing, satisfy their hunger or provide for their families, they had followed the call to join. By 1936 the new army counted already way over a hundred thousand well-trained men. Looting of Jewish owned stores began. Many Jews fled, seeing the writing on the wall, even more didn’t make it. Jews were accused of causing all of Germany’s problems. It was a hate propaganda the world had never seen.

Then came the 1st September 1939. Without warning or declaration of war, the Hitler army invaded Poland. England declared war 2 days later and WW II could not be stopped anymore.

Watching the “News” on television every night for these last years, especially the last several months, I can’t help thinking back to the first ten years of my life growing up with the Nazi propaganda. Now, the terror acts in Europe are frightening. The racial hatred on the North American continent between the blacks and the white suprematists and the emergence of the neo-Nazis is growing. The brawls and shootings in peaceful cities are scary. The Muslims seem to be targeted like the Jews were in Germany, so far not to the same extent. I am not the only one to notice the similarities to the happenings back then and now. When I see the incredibly well trained and disciplined North Korean army and the missiles they promise will be able to reach the USA, what am I to feel? I shake in my proverbial boots. The Germans apparently see it clearly. Why else would one of their most popular magazines, the “Stern”, have such a controversial cover page on one of their recent issues? Do they fear another WW with the number III attached? Do they try to send a warning to the world without many words? They had just changed the first letter of the title of Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” (my struggle, my fight) to “Sein Kampf”, (his struggle, his fight).

We are living in a dangerous world. We are experiencing history. We don’t know if we will survive a “next time”.

Review of my Memoir brings Tears to my Eyes

Nikki Landis, a Goodreads author, reviewed my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That: An Amazing Story of Survival
Her rating: 5 Stars.

Nikki Landis is an award winning author of about a dozen books. She is well known for her “Fight for Light Novels”, “The NightWatchers Saga” and the “Freedom Fighters Series”. In 2017 she was the proud recipient of the IPPY Gold Star for her latest book “Refugee Road”. I have just started to read it and am fascinated.

Nikki is not only a prolific writer, she also reads more than anyone I know, and reviews all the books on Goodreads. Plus, she is a wife and the mother of five boys (7 years to 18!)  and works full time. How does she do it? Do her days have more than 24 hours? Oh, I forgot – the night also has 12! Funny! Thank you, Nikki, from all my heart.

Read Nikki Landis’s review:
Read in Aug 2017

Some stories must be told, no matter how disturbing, horrible, or unbelievable they may seem. Some truths devastate because you can’t imagine how they are possibly true. You DON’T WANT them to be true. How can such brutality exist? How can one individual possibly survive after so much horror? How much can the human spirit endure and bounce back from the brink of destruction and continue on?

This book, I think, is probably one of the most emotional and life changing stories I have ever read. It truly touched my soul. I have the utmost respect for the author and her courage, bravery, and willingness to step forward and tell the truth about the shocking and brutal events of her life. She is, WAS, a victim. Her family were victims. Her friends and neighbors. In fact, many German women were and yet they survived. They pushed forward. They endured the despicable and impossible, and they persevered.

This book is not an easy read. I had to stop often, take a breath or break, and come back to the story. Over several days I read and witnessed the horrific events that changed a nation and destroyed a country. As an American woman in 2017, what do I truly know of suffering? What do I know of survival, fighting with everything I have in order to make it through each day? What do I know of living in fear for my life or waiting for the next man to knock on my door, ordering me to disrobe? What do I know of losing all that I own, of being displaced without a home or country, and losing everything, including the people I love? What do I know of starvation?

The answer is simple. I do not. But by reading this story, I have an idea. My heart just aches. I’m devastated. I cannot imagine enduring for even one day what the author and these other women endured for months, years of their lives. How did they go on? How did they later marry and have families? How did not lose their very soul to such inhumane acts?

The story does not end there. The author takes us on a journey of self-discovery and the search for freedom. I found myself cheering her on throughout the book, hoping that she would finally find peace, love, and happiness. I don’t think you can give away spoilers in a novel like this. It’s a true account of suffering and perseverance, of losing everything and finding what truly matters, and because of that, I am happy to say I think the author found what she was looking for in the end.

Chronicling the first thirty or so years of her life, the author lays out life in the 1940’s and 50’s and her youth, her family, and life before the war. Once the war starts, it’s a shocking read. Be warned, this novel tells the brutal truth and is in parts almost too much, but only because of content. The way in which the books is written, in a narrative that feels like you are listening to a close friend, is the only way to get through the stories.

There is a lot of wonderful historical detail from life back in that era, landmarks, cities, geography, and much information about the war and its effects on the German people. For me this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. You hear much growing up about World War II and its effects on the world, the atrocity of so many lives lost, the hatred of the Jewish people, but I don’t think I can recollect much learning in school about the German people and their struggles. It’s wrong. We can’t forget as a society what happened. We can’t condone what happened. We can’t let it happen again.

WE CAN’T FORGET.

Stories like this must be told and published. They must be shared. They need to be read. What hope do we have for humanity if we forget, if the dust covers the words of these atrocities and God forbid, history tries to repeat itself? No, we can’t let that happen. And the author is right to share this story, to talk about what happened, and to ensure her words are written down for all eternity. In her own words, no embellishment, she describes the gritty and grueling aspects of her life from start to finish. There’s no other way the story could be written.

I have a much better understanding of history now. Such experiences must mark a person for life. This is a memoir I would recommend to everyone, but especially I will recommend to the women I know. It’s an emotional, courageous, and extraordinary story that MUST BE READ. I highly recommend purchasing this book and owning a copy for yourself. “We Don’t Talk About That” is truly an amazing story of survival.

Grand Book Promotion

“Smashwords” – the largest distributor of e-books worldwide – is offering an annual huge promotion for the whole month of July. Thousands of e-books are deeply discounted at 25%/50%/75% to ‘FREE’. My books are available at 50% off – a terrific deal if you are still waiting to read about my incredibly interesting life in my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That” and the companion book “Forget Me Not”.

   NOW is the time to take a look at my books again. I have published the Second Edition of my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That” on Smashwords as an e-book. I have made slight changes within but especially with the ending, since so many of you were unhappy with the way I left it. After all the time I spent on it, I can now go back and continue writing the sequel. Actually, there will be two more books in my memoir series: This one, book I, “We Don’t Talk About That” covers my first thirty years in Germany; the second book will deal with the next thirty years in Canada, and then we’ll have to take a good look at my incredibly active ‘retirement years’ – I am not sure yet if I quite make it another thirty years! Close though…

You may even find a little ‘surprise’ when you peruse my titles! Should I tell you about it? Okay, why not! I have added a pretty little poetry book in German language. “Ein Mensch von Gestern … Heute”. A happy book! It was a reprise for me after the heavy duty topics I dealt with and it made me laugh, every time I re-read and edited it. Many of my older relatives and friends, who cannot read my English books, have been complaining. They have tried repeatedly to convince me to translate my books. That will not happen – friends, it is not a matter of translation, it will be a total re-writing. I don’t have enough years left in my life to tackle it. Therefore, this little book may be a “candy” – and I promise that many of the poems deal and tell a lot of my life! For those of you who have German friends or relatives, you couldn’t send them a better gift! However, I find a poetry book is something you have to hold in your hand, it does not read the same when it’s an e-book, so – I have another surprise:

Here is a link to my books on Amazon: Within the next three to five business days you will be able to order a printed version of “Ein Mensch von Gestern … Heute” – the Author listed is Gisela Fiting-Roeder. Since I was well known under my maiden name in Germany I decided I ought to use it. Naturally, Amazon also enrolled the book in their KDP (e-book). By the way, if you purchase the paperback copy you can obtain the e-book for free.

And now, my dear friends, happy reading!

Old-fashioned Christmas in Germany

The Christmas star

The Christmas star

Really? You want to know how Christmas was celebrated in the ‘good old days…’ in Germany? Let me go back about seventy-five years. And when I tell you how my family celebrated it, be assured it was the same way with all the families I knew. We lived in Pomerania and since Germany had many different parts or provinces it may have been a bit different in East Prussia, or Bavaria, or Holstein, or the Rhineland! Believe it or not, the people in Bavaria didn’t even think the northern Germans were Germans at all – and vice versa. The spoken dialect was (and still is) different and therefore the traditions with Christmas might also have been different. I wasn’t aware of it as a small child as my world was also small.

The exciting time started with an ‘Advents Kalender’ – a calendar with little windows for each day. Each window was marked with the date. We were allowed to open one window each morning and enjoyed looking at the picture behind the little window blind. It was hard not to open more windows to find the one gift we hoped to get at Christmas. You couldn’t open more windows because it was then damaged. On Santa’s list, it counted as being a ‘bad girl or boy’. We received this special calendar from one of our grandmas on the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent

Advent

The four Sundays before Christmas were special. Different Christmas cookies were baked each day and the house smelled wonderful. A few days before the First Advent, Grandma would take us to the forest. We would look for small pine branches to take home and make an ‘Advents Wreath’. The wreath was decorated with pine cones and four red candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas. The wreath would be hung with red ribbons over the main table or placed directly on the table. On the First Advent, only one candle would be lit, on the Second Advent, two, then three until, on the last Sunday before Christmas, all four candles would be lit. By now, they were all a different length! Each Sunday we would sit around the warm tiled oven at dusk with our cats in our laps and listen to our grandma telling stories from her childhood or rekindling memories of our own Christmases past.

Shoe shineAnother part of the pre-Christmas time was St. Nicolas night celebrated with cleaning all our shoes, including Mom and Dad’s, on the evening of the 5th of December. St. Nicolas would come when we were sleeping, check the shoes and put some sweets into the shiniest pair. During the war we were told just to put one pair out to save St. Nicolas precious time. Most kids didn’t even have more than one pair of shoes anyway.

Christmas in the stores didn’t start before December. Christmas trees were sold just a week or so before Christmas. To look for and pick our perfect tree took some time. The tree was usually kept in a cold barn or shed. We children would never see it again until Christmas Eve. The parents (oh no, oops, I mean Santa!) would decorate it just the night before Christmas Eve. Even then, we still had to wait until late afternoon on Christmas Eve after the church service with the singing of the wonderful old songs, and the school children acting out the Nativity. The worst was that we also had to eat dinner with that, by now, knotted feeling in our stomach before we could even see our decorated Christmas tree. Dinner on Christmas Eve was always potato salad and wieners, or fried fish. Each family had their own special way of decorating their tree. Ours was always full of angel hair, tinsel, cookies with colorful sprinkles on them and twelve white candles. The tree was always placed on Dad’s desk. Our cousin’s tree also had tinsel but lots of colorful, different size shiny ornaments and different colour candles. No electrical lights – just real candles! They were lit with long matches and the parents always kept a close eye on the tree. There were times when Santa was too busy, so he had dropped off the gifts and they were all under the tree. Before we could touch anything we each had to sing a song or recite a poem we had learned for this occasion. It was so difficult for us children to finally arrive at the Christmas celebration.

Christmas Eve was the real Christmas for us and we could stay up past our bedtime. We would all sleep in on Christmas morning, even our dad. Poor Mother had to get up and look after the farm animals. She would also heat up the stove and the ovens to make sure it wasn’t so terribly cold when we got up. Pails full of water from the pump were kept in the kitchen and sometimes there were thin layers of ice on them. We were allowed to play with our new toys before we got dressed. We always received something for the body (socks or sweaters we needed anyway!) and something for the soul, toys or books.

On Christmas Day, we would either have relatives visiting for a noon dinner consisting of either carp with white parsley gravy or goose and red cabbage. If the relatives didn’t come to us, we would go to their house. Either the visitors or we would stay for coffee and cake, munch on home baked special Christmas cookies or crack nuts. Each child also received a “Bunter Teller” for Christmas. That was a colourful plate with cookies, candies, nuts, apples and oranges which we could eat without asking if we could.

My signature tree

My signature tree

Boxing Day was what we would now call “open house”. It was a day when friends and relatives just dropped in for afternoon coffee. Since all our Christmases were white, we children would be out with the sleighs to pull them up the mill hill to race down screaming “Bahn frei” – warning kids coming uphill to keep clear.

I don’t think kids nowadays would be happy with this kind of life. Do you blame me if I kept to some of the traditions during my adult life and am still dreaming of ‘my kind of a white Christmas?’.

 

A Brand New Life in Canada

My 'Max"

My ‘Max”

It was the 5th of October 1955. My father had helped me to make an irreversible decision. Without even saying ‘goodbye’ to my mother after our last meal I left what had been my home for the last ten of my twenty-one years. My heart was filled with anxiety but also sadness for all I was leaving behind – my parents, my sisters, my friends at my kayak club, my boat “Max” (the great love of my life), and my new sky-blue bike. All I took along was a very small suitcase containing one set of bedding sheets; a couple of towels and an evening gown a friend had just made for me. This was very unlikely luggage for someone escaping from a politically oppressive life into a totally unknown new one – and that was just from one Germany into another Germany. That ‘other’ Germany was known as “The Golden West”. Freedom! Chocolate and bananas and oranges and nice clothing were available if you worked hard and earned money. And I planned to do just that. I won’t even go into the “trials and tribulations” I had to endure. (Most of you read about them in my memoir anyway.) Those troubles finally drove me over the edge and I wanted to “escape” once again. This time, my luggage was a shipping container full of my accumulated goods of almost ten years, except for furniture and my beloved car. It all went across the ocean to another continent. The container later became part of a Volkswagen garage for a neighbour in Canada.

Every year, when the 14th of December comes around, I remember that day in 1963. I remember my feelings. I can see myself, see the way my hair was, the way I was dressed. I was floating in a vacuum. I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t laugh. I can still see my new in-laws and their faces as we said goodbye. Was it forever? I emigrated because of image1-002the little Canadian girl I had fallen in love with and right now she was tightly holding onto my hand. She was shaking. She was leaving her grandparents after a couple of months she had spent with them. I was taking her home to her daddy in Vancouver, Canada. I had married him after five months of lovely correspondence and hoped I would learn to love him after I had my heart set to be a mother to his little girl. She had picked my picture out of about three hundred replies to an ad he had placed in the German magazine “Constance”, and declared: “I want her to be my new mommy.”

image9

Language did not matter between us.

This year on December 14th it will be fifty-three years since I set foot on Canadian soil. I hardly spoke any English; the little girl became my first teacher. The YWCA in Vancouver offered language courses for newcomers; I booked and paid for several courses in a row. Did we receive help in any way from anybody? No. Immigrants were on their own. If you had a job, you might make about $50.00 a week. My husband had started with ‘White Spot’ in 1956 and had not even earned $20.00. When he ended up in the hospital needing a stomach operation, the doctor, who discharged him, had asked:

“What’s your address?” Since he didn’t have one, the doctor invited him to live in a cottage on his property. In payment, he did handyman’s work. But that is another story.

You worked hard, you did not care what the work was, and you just did what was needed to make ends meet. There was a time when I worked in an office, did bookkeeping at night and cleaned toilets on that business property on Sundays. Those were the tough years.  Now, fifty-three years since I first came to Canada and comfortable after a successful business life, I think back and try to figure out “What am I?” Am I still considered an immigrant (Which most Canadians are anyway unless they are indigenous) or am I really the Canadian woman I think I am? I have written four books in English, one of them is translated into three other languages.  I have now lived in Canada for two-thirds of my life. It’s a very long time, but looking back, the fifty-three years passed one another like sand running through my fingers. Life is like a toilet roll – it goes faster the closer you come to the end!

As I am writing the sequel to my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That”, more and more memories are flooding my head about my life in Canada, this enormous and beautiful country. One day, in about a year (?), you will be able to read about the new and different “trials and tribulations” I faced on this continent during those fifty-three years. While writing some of the chapters I can’t help but smile – while others give me writer’s block. Ce’st la vie!

How Hard Is It To Get Rid of Eggs?

anne-of-green-gablesLast night we watched “Anne of Green Gables” – the ‘must see’ delightful television movie, always shown around Christmas time. The scene of Marilla taking Anne (with an ‘e’!) into the chicken pen to collect the eggs, put a big grin on my face. Anne hesitated to touch the freshly laid but slightly dirty eggs with even little feathers on them. Why did this scene remind me of a recent visit with my friend Jane?

Let me tell you. We were traversing the ups and downs in a park along the ocean shore. Our conversation, the way it’s always among women, covered a lot of problems, from global warming to gardening, composting, and, from there, quite naturally to reducing our ecological footprint. Jane reminisced about her experiences while in Germany. She had been posted close to Baden Baden with the Canadian army.

“Giselle, believe it or not, it was 1971 and the Germans were sorting their garbage already then! I had been allowed to rent a small apartment in a house and did not have to stay in the barracks. The landlady showed me where to put my garbage in the basement, sorted by glass, metal, and paper. The rest I was to leave in the bag and just put it next to the container. For some reason, I had to ring her doorbell one day. I was shocked when I saw my garbage bags in her entrance hall. She was in the process of sorting through it. It had been the “time of the month” for me and you can’t imagine how embarrassed I felt for some of my garbage contents. She was quite nonchalant about it. She explained her brother had pigs and there is a lot of stuff in the garbage that can be added to their feed. A few days later she gave me a little package of pork meat…”

I told Jane of my upbringing on a small country farm. I can’t remember if we ever had any garbage that wasn’t used for something. My mother had a basket for shopping, small bags made out of old pillow cases for sugar, flour, salt with those names stitched onto them. Most of all the other food grew in our gardens or fields. We had a horse, a few cows, pigs, geese, ducks, chickens and my father had quite a number of pigeons. Jane continued her story, almost unbelievable for me, the country girl.

dirty-eggs“Oh my God, Giselle, I can’t believe I have to tell you this. With a proud gesture, my landlady handed me a brown bag with half a dozen eggs in it. This was quite a gift! When I looked at them in my kitchen, my stomach turned. There were little feathers on them and some spots of chicken sh#t. No way would I eat those eggs! How could I dispose of them? I didn’t even want to touch them. I couldn’t put them in my garbage because she would find them. The thought of washing them never even occurred to me. But never mind, I found a way. I jumped into my car and drove to a rest stop on the autobahn. The garbage cans were often quite full. I stopped next to one and put the bag with the eggs in it and drove away, relieved. It didn’t take long and there was a siren howling behind me. My goodness, ‘Polizei!’ I quickly checked my speedometer but I was well under the speed limit. I didn’t feel guilty at all and kept on driving. My thought was he surely must mean someone else…The police car sidled up to me and the officer waved me to the side to stop. When he approached me, he made a motion for me to roll my window down, which I obligingly did. He handed me the brown bag with my eggs and said sternly:

“Those garbage cans are for people resting and eating at the rest stop. The garbage cans are for them and not for people to drop off their garbage.”

Even now, with a lost expression, Jane said, “He didn’t give me a ticket when he realized I did not speak German. Apparently, he hadn’t even looked into the bag. For me, it was an embarrassing moment and terrible to have those eggs back. Now what? Then it came to me. I had to go to a meeting, held in a rather large hall. I took the eggs into the restroom there, cracked them over the toilet and flushed them down. I also crushed the egg shells and they followed the egg yolks. Aaah, problem solved.”

I looked at Jane and was wondering – but before I could even ask, she explained,

“Giselle, I was twenty-five years old. I was born and raised in a city and had never seen a chicken or knew or even thought about where the eggs we bought and ate came from…”

chickensWatching ‘Anne of Green Gables’, who was only eleven years old but apparently felt the same way my friend Jane felt, it occurred to me that there might still be lots of city folks who have no idea of what they eat or where it came from. But then – with the enlightening of the 20th and 21st century social media, television, picture books and Farmer’s Markets it’s hard to imagine that children only see the headless chicken carcass wrapped in clear plastic on the supermarket shelves. Seeing those it’s hard to imagine that they were once the creatures responsible for the existence of the eggs down the aisle, neatly and cleanly packaged in recyclable soft cardboard cartons.

Walls and Walls and more Walls?

 

Gate to Dionkelbuehl

Walls can surround you anywhere. You can build a wall around your heart. People build emotional walls around themselves. Your garden may have a wall for privacy. We had a wall built to shore up our garden against landslip. My favourite city of West Vancouver has a Seawall, the most wonderful place for walking or jogging. I have visited a great number of cities surrounded by walls, mostly built during the last two thousand years to keep out enemies or marauders. Surprisingly, many are still in good shape. And last but not least, I have lived and worked in the beautiful harbour city of newest part of wallStralsund at the Baltic Sea with a city wall which was rebuilt after heavy bombardments during WWII. Lest we forget! This wall is not for protection anymore – but primarily for its beauty, history, and tourism. (My guess!) Stralsund is now listed with UNESCO. You find other places with walls surrounding them along the Romantic Road and many other places in Germany. Some even have moats with drawbridges in front of the wall.

Some medieval cities have a small little door next to the big gate which was closed at dusk. A resident, coming home too late to enter through the big gate, had to make himself known to the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper usually lived in a small room above the gate. Giving the right name or password the small door would be opened. During a conversation about religion my old friend Fred had asked me:

“Giselle, do you know how a camel gets through the eye of a needle?”

Fred was a Sunday school teacher. When he asked me he was referring to the Bible, Matthew 19:24. I knew the term but I had no answer. That’s when he explained that the little door next to the gate in the city wall of Jerusalem was called “Eye of the Needle”. During a late arrival with a camel, both man and beast had to crouch and it was very difficult for the animal to get through. Jesus compared it to the difficulty of a rich man getting into heaven.

The most famous and longest wall in the world is the ‘Great Wall of China’. I have climbed this wall to the highest point as the only woman of my China Tour group a few weeks after the horrific happenings in the year of 9/11. The trip to China was the most interesting trip I ever did. Climbing the wall started out easy enough but got harder as the stairs got steeper and narrower. With my western shoe size, I had been walking sideways. At one point – by just inches – I almost got the boot of the man in front of me in my face. Respectfully, I put a few more steps between us.

2-image1The part of the ‘Great Wall’ my group traversed starts not far from Beijing and was built to keep invading armies out. It runs on top of a steep mountainous landscape. Invaders would be seen early and would hardly have a chance before being destroyed from above. Needless to say, the views are stupendous. The ‘Great Wall of China’ is supposedly one of the very few constructions on earth seen from space. It took many Emperors, soldiers, and criminals over 2000 years to build it. Most of the existing wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and, naturally, it has been repaired constantly ever since. It measures 8,851 km (or 5,500 miles) but in ancient times, all the different sections together stretched over 21,000 kilometers.

Another well-known wall to most of us is the infamous “Berlin Wall”. It was built by the German Democratic Republic (DDR) during the night of August 13th, 1961. To this day it is a puzzle how nobody had known and nobody ever saw or heard the trucks bringing masses of rocks, blocks, barbed wire and fence materials to the different locations. To build this wall was the only way to stop people from fleeing to the west. Parts of the wall ran along the middle of city streets dividing neighbours, families or friends living in houses on either side. Imagine a wall with glass pieces and barbed wire on top where we have a yellow line to divide the traffic. Thousands had fled the DDR every single day (I was one of them) and more were trying to escape after the wall was built by digging tunnels, even constructing a balloon, swimming across lakes and needless to say, many lost their life trying. The East German police had strict orders to shoot to kill.

image2-002-1The Berlin Wall was just one part of what became known as the “Cold War”. After the Berlin Wall had closed the biggest ‘hole’ to stop the escapes, construction of a wall with mine fields, and guard towers was built around the entire communist controlled part of Germany. It was probably the only wall ever built to keep people “in” and not to keep the enemy “out”. Just as nobody knew that this wall was going to be built so nobody expected it to come crumbling down during anyone’s lifetime. Incredibly, during a huge mass demonstration on the eastern side of the wall when everyone expected the Russian tanks to crush them, nothing happened and the East German police, guarding the wall, put their guns down. The people stormed the wall, started hacking away at it and once a section broke down, the rush to get through before all hell would break loose, filled the night with screams. Screams turned to laughter as people were met by the waiting crowd on the western side with hugs and tears. With music and song punctuated by champagne corks popping, they started dancing on the wall. The night turned into the party of all parties, never experienced or dared to hope for, uniting people and families after nearly thirty years of being kept apart.

Brandenberg Gate

Brandenberg Gate

On June 12th, 1987, at a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, President Ronald Reagan had called out to Mikhail Gorbachev,

“Tear down this Wall!”

It happened unexpectedly on the 9th of November 1989. It was the end of the Cold War, the unification of the two Germanys and it started the break-up of the mighty Soviet Union. Twenty-seven years of friendship, rebuilding and a never experienced quality of life for many countries followed. Today, we ask ourselves what may lie in our future now.

Donald Trump promised during the American election campaign to build a wall along the Mexican border. Would it become the most infamous wall of all the walls in the world? From the English songstress ‘Adele’ to Pope Francis and many others, cries like “Don’t build walls, build bridges” are heard. According to Donald Trump, his will be the highest, the meanest, and the longest wall ever. Will it rival the Great Wall of China and will it be seen not just from the ‘Moon’ but from ‘Mars’ as well!? Just kidding…