Europe '99

This first part of the trip was a week at the end of May and beginning of June, 1999. I've been working on this travelogue off and on from July 1999 to 9.Sept. 2000.

Notice of the Familientag came in Jobst's Christmas letter, and having been waiting for one since our last attendance in 1994, Jeanette and I were immediately resolved to go, and encouraged other family members to come with us. Of the family members who've been over to Germany, all but Judy - who had family affairs to keep her home - expressed interest. Dad and Marcia would go. Bill and Geri would go. Phil and Carole didn't say no right away, but eventually it was "no go" from them and everyone else. (Except that we found out that Ted and Nancy were going, too, and met them there.) During our Christmas visit to San Diego, encouraged by HP's holiday furlough, we pulled out the maps and atlas, and starting talking about where to go with Dad and Marcia. Too many possibilities led Dad finally to say, "we're happy to have you plan the trip."

Sounds easy enough, plenty of leadtime... Bill and Dad and I were exchanging email on particulars as soon as January. The idea of "Scandinavia" had occurred to us, and with Jeanette's Finnish heritage on her mom's side, and my Swedish from the Peterson side, there were family connections for both of us. Dad had a friend in Visby on Gottland (a big island SE of Stockholm). Scanning the atlas, I observed that St. Petersburg was pretty darn close to Helsinki, and it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity to see the Hermitage. We started to plan out what to do after a week or so in Germany, and had an itinerary with 3 countries, at least. Denmark might figure in there, too, as a way point.

At this point, our San Diego contingent got a little balky. They had a tour of the Holy Land fast upon them, Condo wheeling and dealing on their hands with one for sale, and an offer on a new one. The new one would take some remodeling to suit, and that needs on-site attention from the owners. Three weeks of jaunting about Europe seemed a bit much. How about a cruise instead? The "Renaissance" line has some nice, medium-sized boats, and an itinerary for a couple weeks that sounded somewhat like what we were planning. Our experienced cruisers assured us "you really ought to treat yourself to one." But they're spendy, and trying to wrangle extra air connections, and start/stop adjustments would add cost and complexity. A decision was needed.

We settled on a compromise: a week together in Germany, and then Jeanette and I would go on to the self-guided, too-many-cities in too-few-days tour, while Dad and Marcia would go back home and deal with their real estate. I think we booked the airplane tickets just before their departure to the Holy Land.

For the other half of our USA contingent, Bill and Geri's friends got cold feet once their planning got earnest. There are complications, expenses, unknowns. It's definitely easier and more comfortable to stay home! Finally, a visit to Bill's doctor went from check-up to scheduling bypass surgery. Geri learned how to keep in touch by email as Bill went in for a triple, and a slow convalescence.

So, 4 for Familientag, and 2 for Scandinavia. We made almost all our arrangements through a travel agent, which had its moments, but mostly does not seem like it was worth the expense and trouble. Maybe if we'd had a better travel agent. We ended up with the air, car (in Germany), hotel (all but 2 or 3 nights), train, and boat reservations made in advance. A far cry from 1994 when we had a car and couple of family and friend dates, and the rest to work out on our own, starting with finding a hotel for the first night. I guess I like having lodging arranged for, having been spoiled by business travel. There's plenty of fun experiences to be had without that adventure on arrival in a strange city.

And just to extend the treat, I used some of my United Mileage Plus miles to get us into business class. By the time we met up at O'Hare, on the way over, Dad and Marcia were primed by a ride in First Class from San Diego, and we'd had a nice meal in first from Boise to Denver. We gave up our good seats on the next leg, though, when just as we were supposed to be boarding the plane to O'Hare, they announced that traffic problems on the receiving end would delay our departure by an hour. At least. As far as they knew. If you have any problems, please go to the customer service desk across the way. I went straight to the gate agent's desk instead, and showed him our itinerary.

While traversing the concourse, we'd passed another United flight to Chicago, which was still boarding, looking to leave a little late. Was there room on that? He thought so, but not in first class. Whatever! He rattled his keyboard and produced new boarding passes, I made a beeline back to Jeanette and we headed 6 gates over moments ahead of their push back. Giving up the good seats seemed like a good compromise to make sure we'd go to Düsseldorf on the planned day! We got to O'Hare with just time enough to find where the San Diego flight was coming in, and greet Dad and Marcia as they came off, and then escort them to our next departure.

Getting on our overseas plane, the first thing to do after orange juice and/or champagne is to figure out the 17 or so adjustments on the seats, and settle in for a meal, a movie, and a night that's at least 6 hours too short.

Oh yeah, you have to inventory the amenities kit, and check the menu, too. Or, if you're really traveling on business, you can pull out some work or the New York Times. Thank goodness we weren't doing that!

The flight proceeded uneventfully, and we all made some kind of attempt to adhere to my recommended anti-jetlag protocol: get some of the meal (the appetizer usually does me sufficiently) ASAP (this works better in B-class than coach), then eye shades, ear plugs, and as much sleep as possible (this works way better in B-class than coach) before the hour-before-arrival meal.

On the ground and beyond the American smoke-free neighborhood, we "had a cigarette," negotiated passport control (always interesting with my "winter" picture getting compared to my "summer" look, plus glasses getting off the overnighter), retrieved Dad and Marcia's bags from the bag roller coaster, and skirted the construction zones to track down the Avis office. We were booked for a Such-and-so (who knows what all those car names are?), but for a little more (per day), we could have a Mercedes 380. Well, what's a Such-and-so? "A big family car." We'll take that. It turned out to be a Vauxhall "mini-van." Just right for four of us, with luggage in the rear. Five people would have been too many, but we didn't have five.

Feeling pretty confident by now, we attempted our first unrehearsed adventure. Jeanette had recently interviewed the designer of a park in Dortmund, who now lives in Boise. Let's find it! After getting out of the airport neighborhood and out on to the Autobahn for Hannover, finding a likely exit for Dortmund was challenge enough, with no map to speak of. I think we did actually come very close to the park (without quite seeing it); we stopped and walked around near a football stadium, and went by a turnoff that might have been the right one once or twice. I tried my hand at stopping and asking for directions in German, and actually did fairly well at it. Now I have to learn how to understand directions that people give me in German.

Oh well, on to Wiedenbrück, a lovely small town, half-way between airport and Hannover, and our destination for the first night. One stop along the way, at a rest area, to have a bit of fresh air, a snack and timezone adjustment. It was green and sunny enough, but could have been a little further removed from the busy Autobahn. As we were settling in at a picnic table, there was a the squeal of a full-speed, four wheel skid. We looked up to see a small sedan sideways in the westbound left lane pass a truck, get out in front of it and over to the shoulder, smack the right guard rail on the driver's side (as it was now turned around), and ride the rail to a stop, with the truck managing to brake to a stop just short of the car.

Amazingly, no one was hurt. The sedan was probably scrap, but given all the other possibilities, it seemed like a pretty good outcome. We 10 or so unwilling spectators on the far side were maybe not so rested after that stop. Driving in Germany is efficient (most of the time), fast, orderly, and best done very soberly. When things go wrong, they can go very wrong. That woman was either incredibly lucky, or she's a hell of a driver to have ridden that skid to a safe stop with a truck ready to crunch her.

After that, and our view of one or two huge traffic jams westbound, the wisdom of Dad and Marcia driving from Hannover to Düsseldorf to catch a flight next Wednesday was being reconsidered. In fact, after a later trial run (he seemed to do fine by me) from Barsinghausen to the Hannover train station, the consensus revision was to leave the car in Hannover, and when we went north to Hamburg and Copenhagen, Dad and Marcia would stay overnight in town, and then take the train from Hannover to DUE instead. If the train goes where and when you want to go, it's a much nicer arrangement, and that plan worked great for all of us.

We found our way to Wiedenbrück, and with one false start (and one round of foreign language directions), we got to a Parkplatz in the middle of town, and made an exploratory Spaziergang to track down our hotel, which was indeed on the old market square. It was easier to find it by foot once we were close, actually. Back to the car, drive to the hotel and then to its underground parking (in a different building on a different block; a hotel employee rode with me to that), where I managed to park this little So-and-so minivan within a hand's breadth of a concrete wall on two sides. Don't ask me how.

I don't know what weather they'd been having, but this was a beautiful afternoon and evening, and the sidewalk cafés sprawling out on to the Marktplatz were doing a lovely sort of happy hour trade. After a stroll around, we enjoyed leisurely beers and a delightful dinner on the square. (We also learned when to pay - when you don't want to order any more. Having missed that opportunity, the table was cleared, save for one used and empty glass. Eventually, we surreptitiously watched some other customers make their exit, and grabbed the waiter for a repeat performance. Ah, the glass is left to signal that business is not done here.)

It was late for us travelers, but seemed too early (and too light) to go to bed, so we struck off in a new direction, and found our way to the lovely greenbelt in the middle of town, with walkways, play areas, waterways and ponds. Perfect for the after-dinner stroll. The downside of the pleasant late spring evening was that people enjoyed it and the market square right on to midnight or later. With our rooms on the "good" side (away from the street, and toward the square), we had to choose between ventilation and quiet. Always bring your earplugs.

Zimmer mit Frühstuck (room with breakfast) is the way of European hotels, and forget that silly notion of "Continental breakfast" in the US. This is the real thing, typically with fresh baked rolls, bread, jam, thin-sliced meats, cheese, cereal, juice, fruit, and of course coffee and tea. Guten Appetit! On the good advice of Rick Steeves, we made it a practice to help ourselves to both a hearty breakfast and an economical lunch, discreetly slipped into a purse or daypack. Having two meals provided for frees up time and energy for less mundane tourist activities. If a good lunch spot happens to appear when needed, the sandwiches can be applied to a light supper instead.

A little consultation and local information turned up the perfect thing for the morning: a stroll on the greenbelt, over to the neighboring town of Rheda, maybe a couple kilometers away. This view is across the street from the Ratskeller hotel, and the way to the greenbelt is just on the right. The pleasant path quickly loses its "in town" feel, and we shared it with bicycle commuters, school kids, retirees, and folks out walking the dog. From "city park," over a pedestrian bridge that keeps it completely isolated from the city traffic, to informal hay field (which did not make me sneeze; I'm not sure why, but I seem to have just skipped hayfever this year. I could learn to live with that), under a railroad line, past another play area and a small zoo, under the Autobahn, to a forest and wildlife preserve, and finally to another city park, with rose (just barely opening) and formal gardens around the local mill and Schloß, which seems to be half private residence and half city administration offices at this point. We missed the shady, and somewhat doubtful looking entrance to the loop shown on our map, so ran our morning stroll more or less in reverse for the return. By the time we got to the hotel and checked out, the day was warming, and so were we.

On to Barsinghausen, and the Fuchsbachtal Gilde Sporthotel, which Jobst (or perhaps Henning?) had arranged for us, first 4 for Bill and his group, then 6 for Bill and Geri and our 4, then just us 4. Groß Goltern is about halfway between Dunau and Barsinghausen, a distance of a pleasant bike ride. It's tucked up into the "Deister" (DICE-ter), a sizeable forested hill, maybe 2 or 3 km to get over, and 20 long. Even with a good map of the area with the hotel's location marked, we had to do some trial and error in the city, greatly facilitated by black and white signs that guide one to the Sporthotel. The hotel is on the high side of town, with nothing but walking paths up Fox Creek Valley (i.e. Fuchsbachtal) and the Deister above it.

The "Sport" bit is a football (i.e. soccer) pitch or two, an indoor practice area, probably some exercise rooms, and a small indoor pool. Jeanette and I gave the latter a go. It was an OK size for two people. Three or four would have been crowded. When a team or two shows up, the place is probably pretty lively, but when we arrived, the construction crew adding a new wing outnumbered the guests and staff put together. We were given two nice rooms in a set of three in the main building, convenient to the dining area, front desk, etc., and in their own little corridor.

I called Jobst and let him know we'd arrived, and he invited us over to Dunau, 8-ish. We sought dinner in Barsinghausen, making a couple of loops unsuccessfully looking for the place recommended by the clerk at the front desk, then cruising the pedestrian shopping district, finally picking up a few choice things at a bakery near closing, and trying out a trail on the Deister, back at our hotel for a picnic supper. Driving to Dunau, I chose a less-than-easiest way out of Barsinghausen that would take us through Groß Goltern on the way. Missed a turn, got into a subdivision on the wrong side of the tracks (nice enough subdivision, it's just that we wanted to be on the other side of the tracks), and found my way out of it, just when my traveling companions thought it was time to stop and ask directions. It's not that I won't do that, it's just that a lot of the time the directions don't help!

So we did go through Groß Goltern, and Nord Goltern, then Göxe. After that last turn, and once out of the town, the horizon had a familiar feel to me. Passing by the electrical transmission line to one side, the long block of tall trees to the other, the fields surrounding them, I thought (and said) "that must be Dunau." It's a big piece of land, and after making that approach a few more times, its familiarity-from-a-distance had settled in on me. Up close, at the turn opposite the hamlet of Lathwehren, it had the additional familiarity of somewhere I've bicycled, if only once, in 1993 with Jeanette and Christian. Past the windmill and Auf der Dunau 2 to Auf der Dunau 1, and the Rittergut. Through the opening in the stone fence and to the gravelly parking area, then walking under the stone archway, my sense of the place is no longer wonder, or recognition, or familiarity, but more like home. It's not my home, of course, but it has such substance, stability, permanence, at least in my memory, and the people there have always had such a warm welcome for me and my companions.

On this second lovely evening in northern Germany's late May, of course, the household was rather busy with a few guests already arrived, and preparations for tomorrow night's Vorabend (pronounced "FOR ah bent" - I do hope you're pronouncing all these German words correctly as you read through). As the quite distant cousins, we could show up early with friendly smiles, and not in a position to help, really, without that being too much of a gaffe. We enjoyed the tradition of pleasantries on the stone patio, a beer and snacks, and a relaxed stroll and chat around the magnificent path through the beeches, accompanied by the frogs, now returned since the ducks have gone from the pond.

At this point, it's a little hard to remember who all was there, as the 4 consecutive days of family visits tend to run together a bit in the memory. But Jobst and Veronika, Dorothea and Christophe, Christian, Ele (Gabriele) and Boris, Christina, I think. We got just a peek at the 4 grandchildren, who were off to bed about this time. Enough to pique their interest and/or alarm them. Jeanette offered to help with preparation the next day, maybe look after the kids? Conrad was concerned about being looked after by someone who couldn't speak his language. Carl asked weren't Americans our enemies? Interesting, huh? I suppose when I was his age (4-ish?), "playing soldier" was an important activity, and I would have viewed Germans as "the enemy." (That was almost 40 years closer to WWII, though!)

We have words for "outsider" in English, such as "alien," but that word's connotation makes me think of either a bureaucratic classification (resident/non-resident, legal/illegal) or UFO nonsense. (Or, of course, the Unix login I've used at work for 15 years now, It seems to me that the German word Auslander has a more immediate, and regular usage. I suppose since I can trace my German heritage, there would be some qualification for me, but in their system, Ausländer do not become citizens, ever. But I digress. Just as it's always springtime in Germany for us, it's always family-time, as well. By the end of our visits, Conrad and Carl were at ease around us, at least.

The youngest pair - Boris and Ele's Caspar, and Chrisophe and Dorothea's Elizabet were to be christened in a joint ceremony the following weekend, as if the Familientag weren't excitement enough!

Friday morning, we're on our own for the day, with Vorabend starting at 6pm. Let's have a look at the family stuff in Hannover. I tried navigating for a change, and Dad driving, and we found our way into the city, through a couple strategic roundabouts and dodging construction zones which didn't show on our maps. The signs were good at telling us what we couldn't do, but not always what we should do instead. It's probably just as well we couldn't find our way to the front of the train station: we found out later (on our way to Tuesday's train) that was a total circus. Instead, we were shunted 'round back to the multi-building, multi-level Parkplatz, where they have so many cars they have to hang some from the ceilings.

Like a lot of stuff downtown, the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) is being renovated for Hannover's Expo 2000. This is the front view, which we came to after negotiating a variety of underground passages from where we parked our car. ("Now remember where we parked the car" takes on a more emphatic meaning in this situation!) The ticket office is in the pile of beige containers on the right. Various shops and offices were in the containers on the left, stacked three high! (The whole wing of the old train station behind the yellow containers had been cleared to the walls, and was being redone.) The Avis office was just being set up off the picture to the left, with a mini-container that had not yet been wired for power, telephone, or network. The nice clerk said she'd leave a message at our hotel once she could find the answer to our inquiry, and so she did.

Inside, at the Deutsche Bundesbahn (you could see the DB logo if I hadn't shrunk the picture so much) information desk, I got a little lesson in European queuing theory. Casually holding my place in a slow-moving line, a nice German lady eased from behind me, to next to me, then got a shoulder in front of me. When even politeness couldn't obscure what was up, I said in an annoyed tone, "exCUSE me" and moved forward into her personal space. She looked at me, blankly, did not budge. Even more annoyed, "Entschuldigen Sie, bitte!" Even that wouldn't have been effective if I hadn't expressed "You're NOT getting cuts on me, lady" with positive body language.

We got a timetable from the information desk (funny that the locals seemed to need more hand-holding; give me a timetable, and I'll take it from there), a good city map from one of the containers, the car disposition initiated, practice getting to the train station and so gained a bit of confidence in this travel business. Sightseeing next! The car seemed happy where it was, so we struck out in to the big square and pedestrian areas in front of the train station, visited the mouse in the

lobby of the Opera house, minded our wallets through the lively morning street scene, and visited the Marktkirche, rebuilt from war's damage and left finished in a marvelously spare and honest plain brick.

The Neues Rathaus (new city hall) sits just outside Friederichs Wall, once the limit of the city. In addition to its bureaucratic function, it's a grand civic monument, with a beautiful entrance and domed atrium over the grand staircase into the inner sancta. I suppose to prepare you to accept whatever they tell you after your supplication. In the large atrium, there's an exhibit with four big models (same scale, same size, each maybe 4m square) of the city in various stages of its history, from medieval city-state, through industrial age commercial center, to "today." The first model is more open space beyond the wall than anything else. The last can't capture the whole city. In between the last two was WWII, and the 1945 model is more than a little sobering, with the results of the thorough Allied bombing shown with fidelity to detail. The tall column monument in the open space of Waterlooplatz stands undisturbed in the 1945 model, I suppose not worth a bomb with no other buildings around it.

For a few Deutschmarks, you can ride the interesting curved elevator over the dome, and up to a fantastic, open-air view of the city. The elevator's profile is a rhombus rather than a rectangle, and the floor noticeably not level when you get in. By the time you get to the top, it's passed through level to leaning the other way. Not everyone enjoys looking through the window to see the curved shaft between inner and outer domes, but I did. Back to walking, the floor and stairs are level, of course, but it's a relief all the same to find them so. The view of the Rathaus itself is almost as interesting as the city and surrounds (we could easily see all the way out to our Deister). The copper roof (with its greenish oxide patina) of the outer dome is visible at the bottom of the picture. The trees at the top of the view are one corner of the small Maschpark around a pond the size of the city hall plan. Beyond that is the more substantial (c. 200m x 2km) Maschsee, with a jolly assortment of boats out on a nice spring day.

Back down on the ground, we negotiated a couple big intersections (with separate paths and traffic lights for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians) to pay our respects to der eisen Onkel (the iron uncle), the statue of Graf Carl von Alten, the local leader under Wellington, gloriously victorious against the French menace at Waterloo. (Since he didn't have any children, he's uncle to everyone in the family.) Another monument to a defeat of Napoleon turned up at the other end of our trip, on the taxi ride from our hotel to the St. Petersburg airport. It reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe (intended irony?), and in response to our apparent interest, the driver (who knew almost no English) pointed and said "Napoleon," then wrote "1812" on a scrap of paper, and circled it. That was 3 years before Waterloo... some people never learn.

Back to our minivan in the Raschplatz, and from there with the usual fits and starts, to Linden, once a von Alten estate in the midst of the city. Navigating on our own got us to a different corner than I'd been to before, and we entered past a school that's inherited some of the old wall. After being bombed out in the war, the estate was donated to the city. As "Von Alten Garten," it still has its handsome gatehouse, some of the old wall, and a selection of column bases and capitals, now employed in the play area.

After a pleasant lunch in the shady park, we walked through the gatehouse, admiring the stone wappen (and failing once again to get good light on a picture of it), and out to Von Alten Allee for the obligatory photo opportunity.
We should check the street signs down the way, now that they've hung a trash can off this one, huh? And it looks like I caught Jeanette between poses, darn it.

That seems like a day's worth, doesn't it? It was for us, and we headed back to the hotel for a nap and to shower and change for the evening. My inner clock was pretty well synchronized with local time by now, and we rolled through the gate at Dunau so close to the moment of 6:00pm, it was a little scary. The rest of the 40 or 50 guests were not quite as punctual as we were, but Cord and Jürgen from next-door Kirchwehren, and Siegfried, from definitely not next-door Posteholz were. Once we filled up the available chairs on the patio, and it was clearly going to be awkward for whoever came next, a contingent of non-English speakers resolved to make the Rundweg through the beeches, and left us to struggle through introductions, and home in on whichever cousins were best at our language. I was a little relieved when after one particularly inscrutable exchange, I buttonholed my new-found interpreter, Julia (or Julie? Last name Drüge? daughter of a Jutta who I can't find in the family book, either) and asked him "who was that?" and she said she couldn't understand him, either. He just mumbled something unintelligible.

Mein Gott! I wanted to hold on to the proffered hand and not let it go until he'd brought me to an understanding of what his name was, at least. Bitte? Entschuldigung? Wer bist du? (A bit odd to use the "familiar" in asking "who are you?" I suppose, but my assumption is we're all family of some sort.) Of course, I didn't do that. I was afraid we'd met, and of course he knew who I was, and how embarrassing that I didn't remember him. He was probably afraid of the same thing. I couldn't tell from the response that I was getting to "Ich bin Thomas, von Alten, von die Vereinigten Staaten" whether I was belaboring the obvious, mispronouncing it to something laughable, or committing a gaffe of some sort.

The solution was to keep my glass of kalte Ente (cold duck) full as Chrisophe made the rounds, and stick with conversations I could understand. By the time things got rolling, language problems were mostly forgotten. The whole evening had a rosy glow to it, plenty of good food, good drink, and good company.

When the crowd started to thin, and our energy to manage conversation start to flag, we made our way back to Barsinghausen easily enough, followed those nice signs to our hotel. As we prepared to fall into bed, there were some annoying snippets of rock music booming through the building, but it didn't seem like it would be persistent. Practice, apparently, and they needed it. Soon it was over, forgotten, and we were off to sleep.

Now Saturday, our 4th day, and more beautiful late spring weather, the sun up well before us. By now our table for breakfast was reserved and labeled for us, and we planned a morning outing before the family activities (starting with a light lunch at 1pm) while having our breakfast. Hildesheim seemed doable, and it was one of the "9 historic cities of Northern Germany" highlighted by a brochure we'd got back in '94. By now, our group navigation had improved a notch, and rather than drive around looking for something or other, we quickly found our way close to the center and into a parking garage, from where we could reconnoiter on foot.

We made the 364 step climb (Dad counted, not me) to the top of a church tower and enjoyed the aerial view of more interesting attractions than we could get to. We picked the best looking one, another church, and saw this view of it through its side entryway. We found out later, unfortunately, that one of the interior features we'd overlooked was the tomb of one of our relatives!

Finding the town of Groß Goltern on the return was easy enough, but now where exactly was Henning and Heike's place? I figured the town wasn't big enough to hide it for long, but still managed to drive by. On this particular day, it was a bit easier to find, with a rather large tour bus doing the same search we were. A few bemused locals answered my inquiry (the answer was either "you just drove by it," or "follow the bus"). In fact, we had to wait for the bus as the driver carefully inspected the arched entrance to the large courtyard ringed with the buildings housing the farm machinery, and then, while he inched ("centimetered" just doesn't sound right) his way through. From our vantage point, there was zero clearance, but no scraping sounds. (Going out was OK, with a load of people; on the return, he didn't press his luck.)

Once inside, we had a larger, sunnier version of the many introductions and reacquaintances of the night before. The bridge and arch to the inner courtyard was decorated with von Alten banners, and, in our honor, the American flag. We encouraged Dorothea and Christophe to pose for us, and Conrad's favorite cousin (I'm guessing) wasn't about to step away from the group.

But that's a bit too far away: here's a close-up of just the family:

Maybe overexposed from the camera's point of view, but it was a marvelous day for the Familientag! We enjoyed a light lunch in the courtyard, some of us dodging the sun a bit, posed for some full group pictures (who's going to caption those?!), and loaded up the double-decker bus for a trip to a Kloster (monastery) in Loccum.

On the way, Jeanette and I each latched onto an English-speaking informant, and she chatted up Christine, while I practiced bits of German with Julia, and she told me about how excited she'd been about dinosaurs as a child, and had specifically come to the Familientag because of the field trip to the dinosaur park. Little Carl, there, was pretty excited about the prospect, too; if the photo were higher resolution, you would see a toy dinosaur in his hand.

The Kloster tour felt right in keeping with the weight of family history around us, and the guide and family members gave us a few asides in English, even though the tour was in German, for a German group. By arrangement, we got to see a few more nooks and crannies than are normally open. The last of these was the library, with a tall, stained-glass windows along one wall, each of which was unique, and beautiful.

One turn in the courtyard gave me a chance to pull out my camera and try to get some of the people in the tour group. Not a great result, but better than none at all while we wait for the official group photo (which turned out to not be captioned).
Starting from the first one I recognize, second from left, is Christine, Nancy, our tour guide, Ted, Jürgen behind Siggy, Rita and Karl-Eberhard, Jeanette in stripes, Volkmar, Dad way in the back with his yellow hat, Fredericka, her husband, Jobst and Dorothea.

Alright then, on to the Dinosaur Park! On arrival, we pretty much took over the café's patio (and its shade umbrellas) for a wonderful bit of refreshment. For some of us, the polite conversation may have gone on a bit long, but soon we mustered up at the outdoor exhibit's entrance and were introduced to another tour guide. As this was going to be in German as well, and threatened to go a bit on the slow side, some of us broke ranks immediately and guided ourselves ahead.
I was chuckling to myself as I took this picture around the first bend, thinking of the caption: "And then the Familientag went horribly wrong." But of course it didn't. I should have asked everyone to pose the way the little guy in the stroller did.

The park was inspired by fossilized dinosaur footprints in an outcrop of sedimentary rock, and they've done a nice job of protecting the footprints with a lightweight structure with glass walls, and boardwalks with interpretive signs spaced through the path. At one point, there are steps down, and the museum path crosses the dinosaur path right on the mudstone. It was a nice effect to let you feel a connection to something millions of years old. The dinosaur models, built out of fiberglass and handsomely painted, were also nicely done. The latest movie special effects make them seem unrealistically static, but there's something to be said for "life-size."

After all that jollity, and a bus ride back to the ranch, we had a slightly compressed break to get ready for dinner. I don't know how everyone else made it work, but by the time we'd returned to our hotel, showered, napped, dressed, and returned to Groß Goltern, it seemed they were actually holding the start for our arrival, and the rumor of adjusting "7" to "7:30" had proven untrue. Not that there was an awkward pause or anything; the large dining room was full with our arrival, and happily boisterous. We were seated, and the event's formal welcomes, thanks, toasts, and speeches set in motion. Since the proceedings were almost entirely auf Deutsch, we had time to admire our surroundings and company, especially the fun of being down at the kids' end of the room.

Henning's remodeling had been finished just in time, I guess, with 3 or 4 rooms combined into one, large enough for formal dinner for 60 or so. The difficulty of decorating the structural elements - a steel beam and 3 columns - had been solved with a generous helping of gold leaf. Probably not the way I would have gone, but it makes a statement.

The place cards were interesting; a keepsake reproduction of a painting of an early (buckskin, rather than armor) von Alten knight. I suppose that's a leather shield with our seven lozenges on it. The little sign says "ALTEN." Not sure of the significance of the frog at lower right.

The title and menu were written out in a florid longhand on each card, making translation even more challenging:

Das(?) Alten'scher

1999 in Goltern

A couple of 1997er wines (no guess, and "Le Volte"), Sau Pellegrino? and to eat, "Sommerliche Salate mit Eismeergarnelen, Brot und Butter * Rahmsuppe von Spargel mit Kloßchen * Kalbsrücken mit ??sauce, Gemüse des something, Kleine Kartoffeln * Frische Erdbeeren mit Sahne und Vanilleeis * Kaffe" Summer salad with arctic shrimp, bread, asparagus cream soup with dumplings, roast veal with a wonderful sauce, vegetables and new potatoes, followed by fresh strawberries with cream and vanilla ice cream. Along with the coffee and tea, there was a nice cart of brandy out on the patio by the moat, with the frogs to propose toasts for our Grand Marnier. (It seems the swans were both males, got to fighting, one killed the other and now they're gone. Hmm, maybe that's how the frog with the knight fits in!)

Without the distraction of understanding the speeches, presentations, and poetry too literally, we were free to enjoy the pageantry of the whole event. As the new Senior, Jobst is resolved to have the Familientag happen on a regular biannual schedule, with the 2001 day to be hosted by Gottfried and Marlen, in Munich. I'm not sure if 2003 is committed, but talking to us, Henning suggested 2005 might be at his place in Maryland! It would be nice to have more interaction between the two branches of the family. The participation from Germany would be more limited, certainly, and I think it will be up to us to encourage this.

Round about midnight, we decided we'd probably had a full enough day, and said our farewells. The party was going strong, and in retrospect, we maybe should have stuck with it a while longer. Back at the Fuchsbachtal, a rather glorious wedding party was likewise going strong, with the band we'd heard practicing the night before blazing away. Our "conveniently" located rooms also happened to be just above the big room where the party was. As part of our cross-cultural education, we learned that such a wedding party can continue through the night. Around 5am (an hour or so after dawn), we decided we might as well enjoy a long walk on the Deister rather than fruitlessly try to sleep. This was way beyond earplugs; closer to one of those vibrating beds with the switch stuck on. On the other hand, Dad and Marcia reported that they'd managed to sleep through it. I was grateful for that. And for own logistical simplicity, we decided to stay the next two nights at the same place. After the brief rehearsal and the "main event," the next nights were blissfully quiet, with two or three other rooms booked, at the most.

The next morning at Dunau, Jeanette and I gave a convincing facsimile of a hangover, while Dad and Marcia went to church in Kirchwehren, with a substantial von Alten contingent.

We'd arranged to visit Siegfried at Posteholz, first by mail, confirming our interest at the Familientag, and with Jobst finalizing things Sunday morning after church. Siggy's English is quite limited, but he makes up for it with his enthusiasm, still going strong at 83. Jobst would go with us, then we added Christian, and Siggy arranged for a woman who could act as translator. (She turned out to be his "girlfriend," Julia, some 20 or 25 years younger?, and unfortunately not brought to the local family events by Siegfried.)

We sorted into Jobst riding in the vanlet with Jeanette and me, and Dad and Marcia going with Christian in his very well-traveled (back and forth between the west and east German farms he manages) Mercedes. I'd been to Posteholz twice before (in '94, and as a teenager), but never had the geographic sense of where it was from driving there. It's a bit further afield from Hannover, into the hills of central west Germany; quite the scenic neighborhood, a little ways outside of Hameln (Hamlin in English, of Pied Piper fame). Christian hesitated at a turn or two, Jobst was scrutinizing his map, and I was happy to sightsee as much as I could while following.

Our run of beautiful sunny weather was coming to its end, with cumulus piling into cumulonimbus over the hills during our visit. It did last long enough for us to have tea on the patio, make introductions, and start to enjoy Julia's delightful company, and helpful language skills. In addition to the simple meaning of expressions, we could start to get at nuances; it turns out that my work to learn German was more or less adequate for tourist logistics, but not at all ready to converse at the deeper levels where things get interesting.

We also got in a pleasant stroll about the grounds before the rain came, with Siggy delighting in showing off the trees he'd planted and his variety of old and new monuments. We posed for pictures around one of the pieces of rock slab fencing he's collected. Five cousins
The stables are nicely refurbished after the big fire in 1994, and we toured his Reithalle (an indoor riding arena, about the size of a barrel racing pitch), and said hello to his black stallion, Lucifer. The sign on his stable says "Ich beisse!" (I bite!) but Jeanette found him friendly enough.
Plaque on Siggy's stable, built in 1902, burned and rebuilt 1994
The plaque on the stables says "Built J.v.A. 1902, Burned 1994, Rebuilt 1994, S.v.Alten"

When the clouds finally closed in and started to rain on us, we dashed into the Siggy's chapel and enjoyed his storytelling about the artifacts with the benefit of Julia's translation. Upstairs is the Rittersalle (Knight's hall), with Siggy's hunting trophies from Southwest Africa (where one branch of the family settled), and more collected history of the region and our family.

But the best fun was up one more floor, to Siggy's collection of uniforms, helmets, and other local memorabilia. We had fun trying on various pieces, ending with me putting on his grandfather von Poten's Consul uniform. It was a bit snug for much more than standing tall and looking good, but it worked for that. Even with my shorts on (as part of what Dad called my "cub scout uniform").

We rounded out the afternoon in the main house, looking over still more artifacts with amazement; family books, books in latin from the days when "book" was a new thing, Siggy's family crystal, portraits, more oil paintings of relatives. So many stories to tell, too many queued up in the narrow waiting hall of "translation."

Our return to Dunau was late into the evening, but Vorabend leftovers still available for as much supper as we needed, and a pleasant time with a much smaller family group than the busy preceding days. We mentioned sightseeing plans, and got directions to a family gravesite along our planned route. Monday brought more rain for our tour northeast of Hannover, with quiet moments thinking about the lives of distant cousins, memorialized by grand stones in a small churchyard in Großburgwedel. The tourist town of Celle was mostly "Closed Mondays," but we did find success at a toy store, purchasing a commemorative edition of Scrabble. (The German game has different letters, points, etc., and had been identified as a shopping goal by my German language conversation group back home.)

By the afternoon, the weather had brightened, and we returned to Groß Goltern, minus the crowd and pageant from Familientag, to a relaxed afternoon with Hennig, Heike, and (Pia and Wolfgang?). We had sun and conversation in lounge chairs, a stroll around the beautiful grounds, through the fields and to the family cemetery. The sense of "at home" is incredibly deep on an unhurried walk along the path through the waving wheat, up the tree-lined avenue, stories of generations of this family, this place. We finished in international style, with Chinese takeout on the patio.

Tuesday morning, one last Frühstuck at the Sporthotel, time to checkout and negotiate Hannover traffic one last time. Dad and Marcia would stay downtown one night, with train tickets for Düsseldorf on Wednesday. Our train for Scandinavia was leaving that morning, just to put a bit of schedule pressure in it. A couple of attempts (and a bit of luck) penetrated the construction, Einbahnstraßen and everyday big-city traffic, to the hotel on the confused square in front of the train station. Unloading was almost a bit too rushed, as Jeanette's bag tried to sneak out and get an early ride home, but we cleaned up the division, and Jeanette and I jumped back in to deliver the car, next.

Around and around we go, and where we stopped... well, we made a note of which spot on the fourth level of the parking lot we put the car in, and hiked back down to ground level and the little white temporary-office-box Avis office, turned in the key with a wave, and headed for the train. Dad and Marcia met us halfway through an underground passage to the platform, for a cheery sendoff, and Part Two of our 1999 European Adventure was underway.


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Friday, 28-Dec-2001 09:23:03 MST