In Heiligenstadt, just off of the main street, there's a path that cuts through a park.
I had passed this path many times walking about town, but one day I took it. I took it because I had never taken it before and because I am trying to go one new place each day while I am here. This has become harder as time goes on, but it's still easier than you may think! People who have lived in a city all of their lives have told me that I know it better than they do within weeks of arriving. (This supports one of my Rules: never trust locals.)
The building on the right contains houses and is built atop the old city wall.
I had expected a nice stroll through the park, but not this! The world is full of things which are hidden from us not by any art, but by our own habits and predilections.
Not much farther downstream I cross a bridge and am afforded a nice view of the falls. It is interesting to think that a waterfall is the sign of a “young” river. As the falls works its way upstream it will usually hit a different rock type, lengthen, or enter a lake, and die. The waterfall also moves at a somewhat predictable rate. In Minneapolis, St. Anthony Falls has been working its way upstream ever since the Glacial River Warren drained Lake Agassiz, sweeping through St. Paul and carving the gorge we see there today. Newton Horace Winchell, Minnesota's first state geologist, estimated this occurred about 8000 years ago by finding the limit of the Platteville Limestone the river rides on and considering historical maps to determine an erosion rate of about 4 feet per year. I've heard that at the time this was the oldest scientific estimation of the age of the Earth.
Tangentally, it's interesting to note that not far upstream of the fall's present location the Platteville Limestone gives way again to weaker rock. Had the falls reached this before they were stabilized for industry, Minneapolis would not exist. I'm also reminded of an excellent story Sonew read me detailing how the falls were almost destroyed by a tunnel built underneath. But I'll tell that another time.
So looking at these falls in Heiligenstadt I wonder what events sparked their formation and, indeed, of all the valleys and rivers here.
A few days later our boss, Uwe (he's on the right), decides it's a good time to bike over to Hamstein. Since most everyone bikes to work, it is not hard to gather us together around two and depart. As we roll into Heiligenstadt the skies break open in a serious downpour. The Germans are completely undaunted by this and we swerve beneath an awning of the building and stand there, staring a the on-slaught. Uwe looks down at his watch, “I checked the weather report and it said we would get about 2mm of rain today; therefore, this will only last about five minutes.” Five minutes later the rain suddenly stops and we continue the ride without further precipitation.
I'm impressed that every town I come to in Germany has signs pointing out hiking trail and bike paths. The distances on these signs frequently read 30km or more and, if you follow them, you find more signs pointing you even farther. I haven't verified this, but I think you could probably hike on foot via nice wooded trails to nearly every town in this part of Germany… maybe all of Germany! Today, we follow one of the bike paths west out of town.
The journey's pleasant. We follow the rail tracks for part of the time, and then a highway, and the trail will also spin off and make its own private excursions in to the country-side. Occasionally Uwe will stop and gather the group together again saying, “Never leave a person behind; this is true over all the world.”
My knee does well with the journey until we are about 16 or so miles in, and then I feel the patella begin to track incorrect and have to slow down. At the same time, a series of long, low hills comes upon us. The kind that punish you for walking up them by making it take an inordinate amount of time. I persevere and take them at a jog. Dieter, riding up next to me says that we have time and do not need to run; I cannot seem to explain that my running is not a question of time, but merely my personal desire to take things at my own pace. I don't run for them; I run for me.
Like seemingly all of the country-side in Germany, the land around is photographically perfect.
Rather than going straight to the restaurant in Hamstein where we plan to eat, we make a detour further along the bike path. Leaving the bikes at the bottom of the hill, we walk up a steep gravel road through a thick pine forest. Uwe tells us that they came here in December a few years ago and the whole hillside and turned into a frozen waterslide of sorts—they ended up crawling up it.
But at the top is the most perfect oxbow I've ever seen. A small hill at its far end seems to separate two nearby villages. Rather than building over it or around it, the townsfolk said, “This is enough. Let us instead build a new, separate town.” Germany as I know it in microcosm.
Looking very serious, Uwe explains that once the Devil had a party with a number of witches on The Brocken. Near the end of the night the witches and the Devil made a bet concerning whether or not he could carry a heavy stone to some distant place (whose name I forget). The Devil set off with the stone and quickly left the witches behind. Coming to this place, he decided to take a rest and ended up taking a nap. The witches caught up and he lost the bet. The oxbow is his hoofprint and the rock from which we're surveying it is what he sat on when he rested. “And this you must believe”, Uwe says, “because it is true.”
Near to the rock is a kind of lodge; inside, we have beer and hot cocoa.
Afterwards we walk back down through the forest to where we left the bikes at the bottom of the hill. Everyone heads out except for a group of us who have paused to enjoy the scenery. When we are ready, one of my coworkers sticks his key into the bike lock, turns, and gets a very surprised look on his face as the key snaps in two.
This is a bad moment to be among scientists and engineers as we all try to converge on the problem at once. After various efforts to remove the broken key flounder and after various efforts to open the lock in non-destructive ways fail—supported by the infinite variety of bike-repair tools all Germans seem to carry with themselves at all times—Andreas comes up with a screw driver and a hammer. “Now we will try with violence”, he says, and begins pounding away. The lock springs open.
I jog my bike up the gravel path, surf down the other side on the pedal, and then bring it slowly into town where we all get off our bikes and walk up the hill towards the old castle there. Just shy of the castle is our destination: an ancient looking restaurant.
The restaurant is only partly as old as it seems: pieces of it and its outbuildings existed in other parts of Germany, but were carefully disassembled and brought here to exacting reassembly. We eat buffet-style, going outside to a separate building and tent where they cook the meats and lay out the food.
After the meal, Uwe explains that they even slaughter and prepare pigs in the traditional fashion here. Then he convinces one of the waitstaff to open up the barn for us. Inside, the air is laced with a meaty odour and there is a lot of meat hanging around. In various side-rooms all the implements of the trade are laid out ready for use the next morning. We wander upstairs into the hayloft, where people can still sleep, for 5€.
Afterwards, I would have loved to have biked home through the night beneath the many stars, but it would have been unwise for my knee, so Uwe's wife stuffs my bike in the back of her car (she drove separately to eat with us) and gives me a lift home while Uwe's son provides an unlimited stream of conversation at a level which is perfect for me to practice German and for him to practice English.
Living in Germany so far has been something like a never-ending party. It seems that each week there is some kind of gathering or other excuse which entails the production and consumption of both food and drink. It helps that Uwe seems to have had at least three celebratory gatherings for his birthday. In this latest one, we all gathered at his garden house again and helped him make goulash in a big couldron. Goulash, it turns out, tastes amazing!
This'll also be my first encounter with Gluhwine, a kind of spiced alcohol that's finished with burning sugar. It is not, however, destined to be my last encounter with it…
The next week brings with it an international conference on biomedical technologies and research. The first morning, we go in to work as usual and then get a ride in to the conference. The whole thing turns out to be hidden in a convention center in Heiligenstadt. I'd walked by this building probably dozens of times without giving it a second glance. It's narrow at the street with no signs to indicate what's inside, other than a grouping of flags above the door. But, once inside, the building spreads out into an atrium and a number of very large rooms.
The conference consists of trying to make sense of a long series of German presentations, though I'm thankfully aided by slides. I have an electronic dictionary named “ding” on my computer and become very fast at using it and, by the end of the day, I know almost every keyword you need to give a scientific presentation in German. To give myself a break, I'll sneak out of sessions and play the piano I find downstairs.
On the second day of the conference, we all gather into buses and head back to the old restaurant in Hamstein.
The mood when we arrive is celebratory. A giant cauldron of cider is served to our growing crowd as a traditional German band gathers and then begins to play their traditional instruments. As they do so, it becomes immediately apparent why these are only traditional instruments: not one of the horns is quite in tune with the others and each new note brings a scattering of discordant attacks.
A feastly buffet has been laid out inside, but does not begin with that. Rather, several kinds of soups (an oily pumpkin soup is the best) and breads, along with various drinks are brought out to the tables, taken away, and replaced with other good foods. There's enough in this first course to serve as a meal on its own! Once we've passed by the buffet, they send in entertainers. We end up with an extremely extroverted gnome who produces a steady stream of rowdy songs, inspired toastes, long-winded and epic-sounding (though, sadly, not comprehensible to me) speeches while drinking a steady stream of alcohol, his cheeks growing increasingly flushed.
After enough songs have been sung and drinks drunk, he drags a chest out of the corner and begins pulling people from their seats to serve in a play which revolving around the familiar motif of a brave knight slaying a dragon and questing for the heart of a beautiful maiden.
After the play is over, I leave the singing and head out to the other room, where I discover a harpist entertaining the advanced-in-their-careers segment of the conference. During one of his breaks we have a chat and he tells me how he used to “holler” (his word for singing), but gave it up and learned the harp because he wanted to be able to make music for many (at least twenty) years. He had friends, he said, who sang and after a few years lost their voices and could sing no more (he implied that they sang quite loudly), but that his harp never hurt him.
Germans take their sidewalks and roads seriously: a picture for the civil engineers in the audience.
Walking home from work…