Travel Journal: Freiburg im Breisgau

May 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Reviews, Destinations

1.

In Freiburg im Breisgau, in southwest Germany, two tall silent men clear the dishes from the guest tables in the Hotel am Rathaus breakfast room. The men bend forward from the waist before each table and their strong fingers are gentle with the delicate porcelain cups and plates. The used cutlery tings as they gather it in their palms. Their walk back to the kitchen is smooth and excellent. They seem to float among their guests. The men wear designer jeans and white short-sleeved shirts and runners, and they are the proprietors of the Hotel am Rathaus where I am staying . Their names are Thomas Hass and Richard Herkert.

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Yesterday Thomas helped me retool my new lightweight-for-travel laptop computer keyboard so that I could write accounts and emails in both English and German. In German “keyboard” is Tastatur, a word I didn’t know in what is often still my first language. Thomas translated it for me. He and I laughed when we had solved the riddle of how to make my keyboard speak two languages: Thomas had done most of the sleuthing work, but I helped him navigate the Windows 8 operating system with which he was not yet familiar. He reminded me when we had finished that in the German keyboard setting the English “y” is a “z” and the “z” is a “y.”

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The room where I am writing, Zimmer 21, is on the third Obergeschoss, which means the fourth floor, if you think in English, of the Hotel am Rathaus. It is a single room, something not common in the hotel business in Canada, but perhaps common here, in the old, Altstadt, part of Freiburg. The buildings crowd together in a way that, when you walk through the narrow cobbled lanes and look up, you feel you are inside an extended single dwelling.

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On narrow Konviktstraße inthe Freiburg Altstadt, residents have strung wires between the top stories of their homes on opposite sides if the street. The wisteria vines, planted at street level among the cobbles (round metal grating around the stems allows room for irrigation) climb the building walls and creep out along the wires to form a canopy. Blue petals drip down on you as you stroll through a garden ceiling.

Frieberg-Germany

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On Konviktstraße, also, there’s a restaurant (Gasthaus)called Die Wolfshöle. It means “The Wolf’s Den.” A stone plaque on its wall informs you that when the building was erected in the early 19th century construction workers discovered a previously unknown “bridal cellar,” ein Brautkeller, below street level. It dated from the 15th century. This cellar provided sanctuary for (one assumes) brides who were hidden there in a time when “wild animals including wolves still inhabited the hills surrounding Freiburg” and “the wolves sometimes entered the town in search of human prey.”

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Each room in the Hotel am Rathaus has a small bookshelf affixed to the wall above the bed, so if you want to read Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) or Siegfried Lenz’s Das Vorbild (The Example) as I could in my room, you can reach up and do so. A small notice glued to the bottom of each book’s cover lets you know that you can purchase a copy of the book you started last night in bed from the hotel’s reception desk when you leave next morning. You can check out and/or purchase books of your choice also from the larger bookshelf on the wall across from the reception desk.

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In my room on the third Obergeschoss (it translates as the third “upper floor,” if you are still thinking in English) the single bed is arranged so that its headboard forms the front of the desk at which I am writing. The bed (new sheets every morning) guides my eyes to its foot and from there to a dormer through whose double glazed window glass I see the tower of St. Martin’s church on the other side of the Rathausplatz. The chrome lamp between me and the bed serves as both a desk lamp and a bedtime reading lamp. In the corner, a few feet behind me on my left, is a floor-to-ceiling glass-and-chrome shower cubicle inside which I can “see” myself naked as I shower in what is part of my writing room, bedroom and bathroom.

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Beside the shower, jutting out from a tiled part of room 21’s wall, is a chrome and porcelain Vitrine. It mimics the wash cupboards one used in hotel rooms (and homes) before the days of running water and plumbing. Except here the water runs from a chrome faucet into a porcelain bowl crafted to look like the olden-day washbowls into which one poured water from a pitcher and, after use, dumped it out the window into the street. The contemporary water in my room drains out the bowl’s bottom and disappears into the polished wooden shelf that juts out from the wall and on which the bowl rests. One wonders where the water goes, and how it gets there.

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My favourite part of my hotel room is the floor. It’s polished oak, and the slats are thin and range in shading from yellow, through brown, to black. They run diagonally across this narrow attic room that in the early 18th century, when the house rows here were built, would have been servants’ quarters. The angled floor slats make the room seem wider (and certainly newer) than it is, and the yellow slats, on occasion, flash lightning-like bolts across the room. When the woman who cleans the rooms comes each morning to clean the floor, the Vitrine, the shower, and change my sheets, she speaks in the local Swabian dialect. Its lilting tones are as old as the town plus its region.

 

2.

Every half hour Freiburg’s many church bells toll out of synch, then in synch, and then in counterpoint. Their music rolls through the town like a strong wave and bounces and bangs around. It leaves no surfaces untouched. All of them are stone. After they’ve been going for a while the bells and their echoes and reverbs combine to produce a continuous single ring tone. When my father left Germany for Canada, it was the bells ringing in his hometown that he missed the most. His eardrums, in Canada, ached for Rheinberg.

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What you get by way of balance to the churchy thunder is the high pitched chirping (Zwitschern ) of the swallows and sparrows and larks who build their nests in the cornices, facades, spires, towers, pillars, buttresses, ornamental statuary of the local architecture. They’ve been living in these human-made miniature eco systems, I’m thinking, for what in their time lines will have been a few hundred thousand generations.

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Yet the birds’ sound—you can actually hear it while the church bells go at it because the two sound spectra create separate acoustic niches—is exactly the same as that made by their country cousins. I walked through the German forest, der Deutsche Wald, up the Schlossberg just outside Freiburg a couple of days ago (the famous Black Forest, source of Grimm tales, starts there) to empirically check this out. I heard not a tweet of difference between the two feathered cultures.

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You don’t get the songbirds, I recall, in western Canada because the forests are too black. Our trees are conifers, not broadleaf, and there’s no real canopy in which the constantly jubilant fowl can have their way with the universe. It’s all straight up, back there, like the church steeples here. Pointy and prickly evergreens. We get squawks and caws and seagull screech in Canada west, not old-country chirping.

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On another walk into the Black forest—it’s still speckled, higher up, with bright green beeches, lindens and oaks—I saw a logging operation. The felled logs, laid out neatly beside the Wanderwege, walking trails, were the local slightly smaller versions of our Douglas firs. No broadleafs had been cut. There was no sign of BC-style forest ravaging. The birds chirped at will.

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It’s not hard in the city and the country songbirds’ compositions to notice licks from Hayden, Mozart, and the various Bach brothers. It’s impossible, in fact. I experience this as a convergence—of countryside and city, of the human and the animal, of time and eternity.

 

3.

I arrived in Freiburg just in time for Spargelessen. This is the rite that takes place locally (in most parts of Germany) when the white asparagus is harvested and the thick, two-finger-long shoots appear on your plate (you’re sitting on the cobbled city marketplace that surrounds the Freiburg cathedral at an outdoor restaurant) smothered in hollandaise sauce and accompanied by a retinue of new potatoes, neue Kartoffeln, that taste almost sweet, are also slathered in hollandaise sauce, and whose life purpose is to add greatness and glamour to the asparagus shoots. One needs long German-style sentences to get a hold on this cultural phenomenon.

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The secret of Freiburger Spargel, or Spargel generally in Germany, is that it is grown in raised rows of earth and harvested just before it sprouts, touches sunlight, and begins the chlorophyll business. It’s therefore, because it’s not yet begun real world life, tender and innocent, free of prejudice or attitude. It’s just for you. And you are it, eating Spargel in Freiburg Deutschland. Man ist am Ort—one’s arrived.

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The way to eat Spargel, or more specifically, to do Spargelessen with proper comportment and behavioral range, was taught to me by my friend and occasional mentor when I studied in Freiburg many years ago. His name was Wolfgang Peitz. He demonstrated how to properly say Spar-gel, with a slight pause between the “r” and the “g” and an ever so light roll of the “r” in the Swabian manner, and to understand that the asparagus fingers that form, when laid properly on the plate, a kind of hand without thumb or palm, should not be experienced entirely as metaphor.

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Wolfgang Peitz explained how the dates when one ate the Spargel (the season starts in early May and ends in late June) were important to acknowledge and were anchored in all sorts of Catholic and pre-Catholic early agricultural heathen rituals in which one honours time, space and human occasion. You toast each other with ein Viertel, a quarter litre, of white Kaiserstuhl local wine served in special glasses whose stems are miniature pillars, and, if you are a real warrior tourist (or just German) you can eat the Spar-gel also with a side of what the menu on the cathedral square restaurant calls roher Schinken, raw ham.

 

4.

 

I didn’t, when I was a student here in the late 1960s, have the money to indulge and honour these agricultural rites and historical nodal points but am able to indulge them now. In memorium to the past in general, I rode my (rented) bike, yesterday, to the entrance of the Albert Ludwig Universität’s main building, KG 1, and I beheld there the larger than life bronze statues of Homer and Aristotle I could well recall from the many times I had passed between them as a youth. Homer holds a lyre, and has titled his head slightly upward, mouth open; Aristotle stares intently at a massive scroll he’s spread across his lap, and his lips are closed. At 19, I didn’t recognize the historical reasoning behind these details or know their possible meanings.

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Homer and Aristotle seem now to provide the same encouraging ambience for the lunch eating students who sit below them and chatter and throw crumbs to the patient pigeons as they provided for those of us who sat there and did the same in 1967. The only difference is that the students I saw yesterday were spending a good part of their time chattering on their Händys, a German kind of mobile hand device.

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No, the students I saw yesterday didn’t look much different than “we” did back then: guys with beards and long hair, scruffily clad, girls with long cascading hair (the kind Joan Baez knew how to use) and open faces. I found it impossible, as I stood and gazed at them, to imagine that these charmed kids could soon become not my children’s but my grandchildrens’ generation. They moved in that sure way in which students move: faces forward, full of certainty, eternity, always ahead of time (theirs, not the university’s) and gifted with a logic of truth.

*

I walked through Albert Ludwig’s broad cobbled courtyard that’s framed by the wide red sandstone arms of the university complex, a location I, as a student, had often walked in (less certain than the German students, but able, so I thought, to fake it) and for no reason I turned, looked over my shoulder. I saw Norbert, there, walking behind me. He didn’t recognize me, but I recognized him. He strode briskly, exactly like the sure-footed German students, forward, with a future as wide and distant as the terrain Homer and Aristotle had sung and then mapped out for him. He passed close by my shoulder, but we didn’t make eye contact. I kept my eye on him, wanted him to turn and look back as he walked away. I waited a few seconds. Then I let him go.

 

5.

Today, my last morning in Freiburg at the Hotel am Rathaus, a man in the breakfast room approached and with great courtesy asked the people at the table next to me—a group of four elderly women, and one elderly man—which language they were speaking. He asked in German. I had been asking myself the same question in English but had not been able to muster the cosmopolitan air required by such a mission. I had listened to the group for a while, and had heard Dutch, Belgian, French, Italian, or even local dialect inflections in various combinations. But I could not settle on a single language. When the German man said Darf ich fragen welche Sprache Sie sprechen?, May I ask you which language you are speaking?, and a woman in the party at the table said Wir sprechen Luxemburgisch, We are speaking Luxumborgian, a double take snapped my consciousness: who knew that such a language existed !?

 

Freiburg, May 7-9, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

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Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.