Black Forest

Once upon a time there was an area where the woods were so dense and whose interior saw so little sunlight it became known as the Black Forest. These dark, dark woods spawned many fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. You almost expect to spy Hansel and Gretel wandering through the trees as they tiptoe past a sleeping Snow White or Rapunzel letting down her lengthy locks. The famous storytellers were obviously inspired by the grandeur and beauty of the area. Located in Southwest Germany, also known as Schwarzwald, it encompasses a series of mountains thickly covered in evergreen trees. It was a scheduled stop during my most recent river cruise and one I eagerly anticipated. In addition to fairy tales and fables, the region is known for woodworking. One of the more popular items to originate in the area are Christmas Pyramids which bear no resemblance to actual pyramids. They are more conical in structure, shaped like a Christmas tree and capped with a large propeller on top. The multi-layered design usually features the participants of the original Christmas story. The Pyramid is encircled by candle holders. When candles are inserted and lit, the combined heat of the flames lift the propeller and the entire Magi procession and animals begin to spin depicting their journey to Jerusalem.  They are whimsical and meaningful, traditional and distinctly Bavarian. The variety in style and design was more than ample and I wanted to inspect the intricate details of each one. But, I had come to see the other ubiquitous item associated with the region, the Black Forest Cuckoo clock. Time was ticking, pun intended, and I needed to focus on the real reason I had taken this particular excursion. A request from a friend sent me in search of a cuckoo clock.  Clearly, the clock makers understand both the beauty of these clocks and the humor. That fondness inspired the Herr Family, owners of the shop in Hornberg to create, what they proclaim to be the World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock. As you arrive, it’s the first thing you see. Indeed, it is very hard to miss! It stands two stories high with many moving characters that include  life size figures in local mountain attire, myriad animals including the star of the show; an oversize cuckoo bird. There is usually a small crowd gathered, waiting for the clock to strike every 15 minutes.  The variety of locally made clocks surpassed that of the Christmas Pyramids. Options were offered in various sizes and styles with two distinctive themes. The first reflected a Swiss Chalet, a humble cottage with multi colored gingerbread-like trimming outfitted with a second story-balcony on the front of every structure. This miniature house was inhabited by the figure of a gentleman, depicted in lederhosen, the traditional Alpen shorts. He also wields an ax in preparation for chopping the traditional stack of wood. Often he is accompanied by farm animals such as geese or cows with bells around their necks. A German style cuckoo clock lacks the whimsy of the Swiss style and in its simplicity is a beauty that I find most appealing. Less a depiction of a small house for humans, it resembles a charming abode for the aviary community. These clocks often feature carved woodland animals such as squirrels, deer and of course, birds. They are finished in rich tones of the forests and can be right at home in any cabin or lodge. Narrowing down hundreds of choices and trying to select a clock that would appeal to the intended recipient was challenging but fun. You can see my final selection in the photo that accompanies this article. The choices don’t end with style selection. Further decisions are made concerning the actual operation of the clock. Your options include: battery operated or the pull chain option which is more authentic. You must also decide if you wish to pull the chains daily, a less expensive option but more labor involved, or to pull the chains once a week. Much as I wanted a cuckoo clock, knowing that I had a house full of cats who might assume it was purchased for their amusement, I decided to pass. Concerned that I would have trouble getting the pieces home without damage, I was relieved to know that the cuckoo clocks would be winging their way to Hopewell Junction via the U.S. Postal Service.

Likely the third most popular item to originate from this area is a sweet treat. We call it Black Forest Cake, the British call it Black Forest Gateau and in Germany it’s known quite simply as Schwarzwalderkirschtorte.  After the lengthy selection and purchase process of the Cuckoo clocks the proprietors must have assumed we were hungry. Being good hosts they offered a piece of this local favorite. I expected a thin slice of cake but was presented with a huge slab that stretched from end to end of the full sized paper plate. This was more like a meal than a sample and who, at some point in their life, hasn’t dreamed of having cake for dinner? It was not at all like the cakes I’ve tasted in the U.S.  It wasn’t overly sweet, the cake was dense and what was that flavor? Oh yes, it was fresh cherries and fresh whipped cream, neither coming from a can. While It might take a bit of extra time and effort to prepare an authentic version I promise it will be worth it. Give it a try and see if it doesn’t make you a devotee of the traditional dessert. Visit our facebook page to see an authentic recipe or email us at embassy@frontiernet.net and request the recipe.  Auf Weidersehen and Viel Gluck! (Good luck!)

Can you give me an umlaut over the “u” in Gluck?

 

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Arc of Triumph

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In my youth I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. We lived in the Bronx and they lived in a small walk up Brownstone apartment in Manhattan and my mother and I visited regularly. I often dreaded the visit because as a child, I was bored as only a child could be. My Grandmother had lots of little breakable items that tempted me, however, I wasn’t permitted to touch. I often found myself sitting and staring at a large piece of mass produced artwork that hung on their wall.  It was a moody, slightly abstract depiction of Paris in the very early 1900’s when cars were new and multiple lanes of traffic were still in the distant future. The focal point of the piece was the Arc de Triomphe, pictured as a light rain fell. The pedestrians huddled under umbrellas, bent forward and moving quickly against the rain and mist as they walked past a single traffic light. The glow of the street lamps as dusk signaled the end of the day gave the scene an ethereal feel.  In later years I began to wonder why they chose this particular piece of art. I remember thinking that the picture seemed strangely out of place with their 1960’s style décor. The identity of the artist remains unknown but the work resembles that of artist Eugene Galien-Laloue, who painted under many different names but always using a similar style.  His primary focus was the Belle Epoque era, using a soft focus with an almost ethereal interpretation of common street scenes, primarily of Paris and surrounding areas. Did they admire his work or was it their hope to eventually be able to visit Paris? My grandfather had ancestors who hailed from the Alsace Lorraine region of France, but I never heard him mention a desire to try and locate any relatives. Now having become familiar with Paris, when I think of Manhattan in the 1960’s, I realize that the similarities between the two are quite noticeable. It was most obvious in apartment buildings with their design flourishes, large windows and wrought iron work and the decorative street lamps that have now been replaced with modern, utilitarian versions. The Flat Iron building in downtown Manhattan, most notable for its wedge shape, is a page taken from Parisian architectural design, as are Tudor City and the Dakota. Perhaps my Grandparents also recognized the resemblance between Paris in the 1900’s and Manhattan..

11220851_10152943793801581_1931384640060123011_nIn time, our family left the city and moved to the suburbs in Dutchess County. My parents struggled to achieve the goal of owning their own home and when they did it was with my grandparent’s financial assistance. In return for their investment, the lower level of our two story raised ranch was built as an apartment, just the right size for two retirees and my grandparents relocated with us. Their furnishings were pared down and kept simple but once again, the Arc de Triomphe graced their wall. If the artwork seemed out of place in NYC it definitely was an unusual décor choice for the suburbs. Several summers after we relocated I struck up a friendship with a brother and sister from France who were visiting with relatives. Guy (rhymes with key) and Ghislaine spent the entire summer in Dutchess County and we enjoyed time together almost every day. It was during that time that I was introduced to the French language, culture and the small daily nuances of life in a French household. As the summer came to a close my new friends prepared to return home. They came to bid adieu to me and my grandparents. My grandfather was inspired to photograph the three of us with the Arc de Triomphe artwork as our backdrop. As we said our good-byes I was invited to visit them in France and we exchanged addresses. They sent several letters, I failed to return a reply and the letters eventually stopped coming. To this day, it remains one of my regrets.

11796284_10152943794311581_2577371835381910989_n.jpgEventually, my Grandparents made one additional and final relocation, this time to Florida and the Arc de Triomphe made its last journey when it retired with them in Miami. Fast forward to 2015 when I’m given the opportunity to sail aboard an Avalon River Cruise and I chose to sail on the Seine. It was my first visit to Paris and I wanted to visit the major attractions and no visit to Paris could be complete without seeing the Arc de Triomphe. Decades of change and progress have brought multiple lanes of fast moving traffic. Wealthy Parisians and curious tourists stroll the Champs- Élysées now lined with upscale stores and boutiques such as Sephora, Guerlain and in case you might be inspired to buy a car while strolling, Bugati has a store front. I was surprised to see The Disney Store, but they too were crowded. As we made our way towards the Arc we also passed dozens of souvenir shops which attracted my travel companion like a moth to a flame. I considered going on ahead so she could shop at her leisure but I decided to stay close and not risk getting separated. Needing to occupy my time, I gave in and entered a small shop carrying mostly postcards and inexpensive replicas of the most famous Paris landmarks. An oversized postcard of the Arc de Triomphe caught my attention and I experienced a sense of familiarity. The art style was a bit abstract and the street lamps glowed just as dusk was over taking the city. The likeness to my grandparent’s artwork was uncanny. It depicted the same early evening rainy scene of people bent down against the wind straining for whatever protection their umbrella could provide. It wasn’t an exact replica but it was close enough to evoke feelings of nostalgia. I was inspired to buy it and now it hangs in my living room. Perhaps, my grandparents dreamed of visiting faraway places, Paris included, but they never mentioned it. Maybe they just liked the artwork. If every journey begins with a wish, I’d like to think  that 40 years later, I fulfilled that wish for them.

Dear Fellow Traveler

Dear fellow traveler in room 215,

You don’t know me but I’m your resort “neighbor”. I get the impression that this might be your very first visit to a nice resort. Heck, it might even be your first visit to an international destination. Since we’ll be “living” in close proximity for the next week I’d like to welcome you. There’s a saying that indicates that all guests bring happiness; some in coming and some in going. Please allow me to offer some advice to help you transition into the former category.

As children, from the time we go on our first play date at a new friend’s house, we’re instructed on how to be a good guest. When you’re young the rules are fairly simple: remember to say please and thank you, if you use or play with something put it away when you’re done and the classic “no hitting” rule. As you mature into an adult you learn proper etiquette for many social functions such as weddings, graduations and unfortunately, funerals. These basic guidelines for manners might be the only thing that separates humans from quadrupeds.  They are also the main element that elevates tourists into being truly welcome visitors. The locations may be more exotic, the customs equally exotic but learning how to be a good guest almost always guarantees you a return invitation anywhere you go. As an American who travels regularly I have definitely witnessed some cringe worthy moments of demanding diva-like behavior and a lack of respect and courtesy that I find shocking and embarrassing. Unfortunately, I am referring to fellow Americans. I have found myself apologizing for the behavior of other tourists and then in an exaggerated form of restitution will offer over the top gratitude for the service I receive and a slightly more generous tip other than I had initially planned.  This may seem extreme but I can assure you that my bed has never been short sheeted and I always receive extra toiletries when I make the request. Good manners aren’t a guarantee in any interaction but I think that travelers need to step up their game a bit because whether they fail to realize or just choose to ignore the facts, they are indeed, unofficial ambassadors for our country, representing their 320 plus million fellow citizens. That’s quite a responsibility and one at which so many travelers regularly fail. Much like being invited to a private home, basic manners are always appreciated. For those who need a refresher, I’d like to offer a few suggestions. Let’s start with acceptance. Travel can help you relax, meet new people and expand your life experiences. Therefore, it’s counter intuitive to mock the local culture or openly talk negatively about the local people, how they dress, what they eat, or the speed at which they move. In many locales the climate dictates what is available locally to be eaten and the heat index often helps to determine what is worn or how fast they move while working. Maybe it’s just a laid back culture. It surprises me how many people don’t want to try the local food. How do you “know” you won’t like oxtails if you don’t at least try them? This shouldn’t need a reminder, but apparently it does: please don’t litter. I know that you’re on vacation, but so am I and I don’t want to relax next to your garbage.

Part of the allure of a hotel stay is taking a break from regular household chores. However, that doesn’t give you license to trash the room. I’m not suggesting that you make your own hotel bed or clean the bath tub, the housekeeping staff will take care of that as part of their job description. I am suggesting that the rules for being a good international guest are no different than being a good guest in someone’s home: Pick up after yourself. It’s a courtesy when housekeeping picks up your clothing from the floor. It’s an embarrassment that you don’t already know to do that.

As with any job that’s done well it’s certainly a nice gesture to offer some form of gratitude. I’m not just talking cold hard cash here, although tips, when allowed, are always appreciated. Not all resorts allow tipping and state the no tipping policy as part of their culture. There are many other meaningful ways to show your appreciation. Some experienced travelers will bring gifts such as luxury soaps or chocolates and leave them as gifts. In poorer nations these luxuries are hard to come by. My personal recommendation is to praise a stellar employee to their Manager. Most travelers will make the effort to gripe or complain about anything that doesn’t meet their expectations but seldom speak up when things are going exceptionally well.  In these poorer nations, job security is everything. The ability to move up to a management position can mean the difference between just getting by and being able to provide a better life for their family. Praise often equals job security. That goes all the way down the chain from the person who handles your bag to the person keeping the floors of the lobby clean. For those resorts with a “don’t ask, don’t tell’ tipping policy you might want to consider tipping your bar tender a few dollars every couple of drinks and a few dollars to the wait staff in a traditional sit down style restaurant.  10% of the estimated total would be a good guideline.

Finally, “if you “can’t find something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is often sage advice but might not always apply when travelling. Most people spend thousands of dollars to have a pleasant vacation experience. If that expectation isn’t fulfilled and you have a legitimate issue that can be corrected, by all means, speak up. As in most situations, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Management will want to and should know what needs to be improved. Any resort that’s looking to stay in business, or at least avoid a really bad review on TripAdvisor, is going to want to be made aware if either the resort or their staff are not living up to reasonable expectations. Just do it respectfully, politely and in a collegial fashion to indicate that you have confidence in their ability to craft an acceptable resolution. If indeed they resolve your concerns or perhaps even exceed your expectations, at the very least offer a sincere thanks. Also, you might want to hop back on to TripAdvisor and let everybody know that the hotel did everything to regain your trust and entice you to return. Wishing you a pleasant vacation,

Yours truly, your neighbor in room 219