(continued from previous post…)
Helga, an 82-year-old cousin of my grandfather who was wearing a pink Lacoste polo, stood waiting for us outside of a large garage-like door while the taxi pulled up. I got out and embraced her, as I had met her in the early 2000’s (I think 2003) when she and her son Helge traveled across the pond to our Kansas home. She was more than welcoming of my friend Chelsie, and we proceeded through the outside door into a courtyard where her home stands. It’s a four-floor slim building that is mirrored by her neighbor’s similar-style home. Finally, we had a place to call home, even if it was for two days. She showed us her home briefly. A tall winding staircase connects the floors. The ground floor contains her bedroom, the first floor stands the kitchen, living room, dining room and porch, and the third includes a guest bedroom and living area. Antique trinkets surround the walls. Her fondness for art and painting was evident with the Northern-style landscape paintings. The American presence was quite obvious as well. On the wall was a bird pin that my great-grandma Esther had given her, and on the dining table was none other than an American flag-painted wood star that my family had given them on their USA visit. After acquainting myself with the unique German home, she quickly warmed up a meal she had prepared earlier. The meal, called Tafelspitz, is a common dish in Germany. It consists of meat slices, potatoes and horseradish, mushroom and leek sauces. After finishing a full plate, the host insisted I eat another. (Let’s just say we were well-fed with the Germans.) Helga’s husband Dieter was not present because his sister had died, and he was attending to those needs. Her son Görge is married to a Slovakian and has a daughter named Laurean. Another son Helge was busy at the North Sea Jazz festival or else he would have been present. Her daughter Inke sees an older British man and lives in Brussels.
We were completely satisfied with a meal, so we prepared to clean up. Oh no. Helga had desserts lined up. Rice pudding topped with fresh raspberries and a dutch-style cake stared us in the eye. One modern thing in Helga’s house was her espresso machine. She whipped out cappuccinos and Americanos with ease. Chelsie saw quick to head to bed after a nice Paris-cleansing shower. Helga and I were the night owls. We stayed up until 4:30-5 a.m. chatting about the things we missed since her last-decade visit.
She has a strong interest in politics. She keeps an opinionated stance on Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her street is too busy for her liking. As a former interpreter, she enjoys studying languages and lectures. Late night programs about art are interesting to her. ‘The War’ seems to define time, either before the war or after the war. Or maybe because of the war. She shared some Nazi Germany stories. She thinks my English is hard to understand compared to my family. Don’t know why. I made a promise to learn German before I return. Better start now. Ladies and gentlemen, she texts. I’ve texted her twice. She wears a Kansas state quarter necklace (the buffalo and sunflower). Again, she takes blame for the war.
We made an agreement to go to bed. I also showered to remove the Parisian filth.
We woke up to none other than a feast. Helga had prepared fried eggs on King Louis toast, topped with mountain cheese. Croissants in a basket tasted well with her homemade raspberry jam. Coffee again was present, as well as the european standard mineral water (carbonated water). Next to my place sat a packet full of family pictures, most black and white and few in color. She explained the story of how we became related. She knew everyone in each picture and their stories. So-and-so died after getting struck by a falling tree. A widower married a widow to extend the family tree. Surprisingly, we aren’t too far away in relation. I took photos with my iPhone of the pictures she had. Most important to me was a family tree that was designed recently. The history lesson ended with a tour of her porch, which had perfectly-bloomed flowers and bushes. Atop the newspaper headlines of Die Rheinpfalz was Germany’s loss to Japan in the FIFA Women’s World Cup playoffs.
That day we loaded into her Mercedes, and she took us across to a connecting town called Hambach. The cities lie next to a large green wooded forest. Through spaghetti-winding roads, we found our way near the top of the mount, where Hambacher Schloss still exists. It is a castle that overlooks Hambach and marks the birthplace of democracy. Chelsie and I spent the time above taking in the clean air and the view. After that, we drove back to Neustadt and went the other direction to Bad Dürkheim. On the way, we saw endless fields of grapevines preparing for a new wine festival. Helga knew how to fly on the ‘Bahn. She parked near a wooden structure that looked like quite eccentric. She earlier had said it was a spa, but my idea of a spa is women laying down with cucumbers over their eyes. We paid a small fee to walk up to the ‘spa’. The place was called Saline Jradierwerk. I will try to explain this, but I think the pictures will be more revealing. Bundles and bundles of black thorn branches from the Ukraine are tightly fit into the tall structure. Water drips from the top through the branches, releasing a salty, sea breeze smell. It seriously smells and feels like you are seaside, and it is good for your skin or if you are sick. The branches last almost yearly, and it adds to Germany’s organic lifestyle. I think in English these are called graduation towers. Wikipedia it.
It was about time to eat (again), and Helga drove a couple of parking lots over near the world’s largest barrel called Dürkheimer Riesenfass. Inside the barrel is a nice restaurant, where we stood out as Americans. Several people noticed because we had the waitress wait until Helga explained the menu items in English. Germans in general, were receptive and welcoming, but maybe it was because we were visiting a small non-touristy town. We ordered three dishes (pork, chicken and sausage) and shared them all. Chelsie was fond of the sauerkraut, and I liked the wine. Helga of course insisted we had dessert, so we ordered Black Forest ice cream. During dinner, Helga chatted about her friendships and the people she’s met in her years. She said she met a man at St. Paul’s cathedral in London who would still remember her. She also visited a former classmate at a lecture. I get the feeling she makes lasting impressions. She had studied and worked in Scotland, as they had better education and books for her to utilize when Germany was depleted. She also knows French and Italian quite well.
After yet another filling dinner, we went back to Neustadt. Chelsie and I had to find a place with Internet to do our weekly assignment for our study abroad program, so we found a casino with access. Ironically, we sat next to a couple of Texans who were ‘just biking through’. From there, we walked home to Helga after the heavy rain stopped. We sat in front of ‘the screen’ (or TV) and chatted a while about our next trip north to the Helduser family. Helga had an album of her Kansas trip on an old boat ladder she made into a bookshelf. After sipping on some coffee, she surprised us with gifts she had secretly bought at Hambacher Schloss. She had purchased two pint glasses for Chelsie and me and a bottle of wine that was native to the area. She also gave us some tin glasses she’d never opened that were similar to her place setting. We were so grateful of her generosity. We didn’t stay up very late that evening, as we had to get up to catch a train.
Again in the morning, she had a similar breakfast ready. We loaded the car and prepared to leave Neustadt. Before our train arrived, we had time to spare. She told us to visit her town church near the city plaza. Most German churches have two spires, and this one overlooked the main city centre. We made a quick return back to the station where she walked us to the platform. It was hard to say goodbye after such a short time there, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to see her life. We hugged goodbye, boarded the train to Manheim, our first stop. She waved aimlessly as the train departed and headed back to her Neustadt home.
She told me to fulfill my promise. I promised to learn German. Like I said, I need to get started soon.
Danke Helga for the memories.
(Stay tuned for the next German family.)