Out of the Mouths of Babes

You don’t often see children on a river cruise so when a young girl boarded the boat it immediately caught my attention. Succumbing to stereotypes, I expected the worst; bad behavior, complaining about unfamiliar food, repeatedly hearing the ever familiar “I’m bored” and refusing to be exposed to anything that remotely resembled learning. She initially clung to the woman I assumed was her Mother and the other female travel companions who appeared to be friends of her Mom.  As the trip progressed my opinion quickly changed. She was a well behaved, witty and talented young girl who could often be found sitting quietly reading a book or coloring with crayons, typical 10 year old things. Okay, maybe she wasn’t so typical. There were no head phones to be seen, not a single cell phone and no pre-teen pop star magazines. I and many others on board were soon charmed by this young traveler. I eventually complimented her “Mom” on her daughter’s behavior and learned that she was not her Mother. She was an Aunt. She was also a fellow Travel Agent who when travelling, always chose one niece or nephew to accompany her. It was considered to be both a learning and bonding experience for both of them. I was impressed that Anna, her niece, willingly and eagerly participated in most of the excursions with nary a “are we there yet?” or a single “do I have to?” The child was well mannered at the dinner table, sampling menu items that went well beyond franks and beans or macaroni and cheese.  The attentive staff ensured that a child friendly treat such as ice cream and chocolate milk always accompanied the adult style coffee and Crepes Suzette or Rhubarb Ragout with Cream Chantilly. One evening, after dinner, Anna and her entourage were relaxing in the piano lounge. She had been taking piano lessons back home and when invited to give a performance she obliged. I happened to be sitting fairly close to the piano and watched the concentration on her face as she read from the sheet music. I admired her confidence and ability to move past the unplanned long pauses and incorrect notes. Reading sheet music could be described as deciphering a foreign language in mathematical increments. It’s challenging and consuming, requiring dedication that many adults don’t possess. But this was less about accuracy and more about courage and confidence and she nailed them both. The next day in the lounge I sat across from her. I watched her knit and I envied her varied talents and silently congratulated her parents for raising a well behaved and well-rounded preteen. Clearly, that’s no small feat in today’s world of out of control pop stars and ‘tween television divas. I shared several excursions with her family group and noticed that she proved to be a good sport even when the weather wasn’t on its best behavior. Upon arriving at the port call of Mainz, Germany, by chance, we chose the same excursion.  The day’s visit was to the Gutenberg museum, famous for printing presses and creating the first printed Bible. I expected it to be a ho-hum experience and wondered how a 10 year old would bear the stolid presentation that reeked of history and learning. Our tour guide was accredited by the museum and would be taking us through the history of the printing press. But first, he needed an Assistant. Wisely choosing the young girl, she became engaged physically and mentally in the subject matter and her enthusiasm brought the audience along for the ride. They both donned rubber aprons and thick, elbow high rubber gloves as protection from ink splatters. The letter blocks that spelled out the first page of the Bible were already set in place. We watched as she gripped the roller and applied ink to the letters. The Tour Guide lent a hand to place the oversized sheet of paper in the correct position. However, it was she and she alone who pulled the rolling bar across the screen to recreate the first page of the Gutenberg Bible. Her reward for her participation was hearty applause and a fabulous souvenir. She was allowed to keep the piece she had just created. Imagine the story she was able to share with her classmates upon her return!  The next day our journey continued on to Rudesheim. While riverboats tend to sail at night, we floated by day to allow us to see the most beautiful section of the Rhine.  We passed the statue of the Lorelei whose allure was said to be so great and her song so seductive that myth has it she lured the mightiest of sailors to their deaths on the rocks. This was one of the most castle dense sections of the river, most in ruins but still impressive. In the land where fairy tales began, each castle had its own history and tale of woe. It would seem that owning a castle in the medieval days didn’t always work out so well for the occupants. As we approached the Burg Rheinstein Castle, our cruise director told us the history of the castle. More likely folklore than truth, but when you’re floating down the Rhine it’s easy to believe the local stories. Two children, Kuno and Gerba grew together as playmates and fell in love as young adults. As was tradition, Kuno of Reichenstein Castle sent his unsavory Uncle to the Rheinstein Castle on his behalf to ask for the woman’s hand in marriage. The Uncle, realizing the merits of the young woman, decided he wanted her for himself. Gerba had no choice and Kuno was heartbroken at the loss of his beloved. On the day of the Wedding the Uncle mounted his finest steed and raced to the Church. Along the way his horse became spooked and tossed the Uncle to his death, allowing Kuna and Gerba to finally marry and spend the rest of their lives happily together. 

The ship grew quiet as we reflected upon the tragic story with the happy ending. However, eventually all children will be just that, children. Despite her maturity, patience and incredibly good behavior, apparently this child had finally reached her limit.  Out of the contemplative silence a plaintive cry of “Not another castle!?!” could clearly be heard. It was the young girl. Those of us standing close enough to hear her disappointment chuckled.  This was just one castle too many. No one could fault her. Despite her talents, good manners and best behavior she was, after all, still a child.

A good day in Switzerland

In my previous article “Something not funny happened on the way to the Alps”, I shared the travel challenges I experienced due to a stalled train. I was travelling with two companions to Zurich after completing a week on a Rhine River cruise that embarked in Amsterdam, Netherlands and ended in Basel, Switzerland. We extended our stay in Switzerland by one day to take a fast-paced tour that would introduce us to Zurich, Lucerne and Mt. Titlis, fulfilling my wish to visit the Alps. The river cruise and its itinerary exceeded my expectations but the trip from Basel to Zurich did not.  The Swiss railway system, noted for their promptness, failed to live up to their reputation this time due to a stalled train. That delay caused us to miss the tour departure from Zurich but due to the heroic efforts of the Swiss Rail employees, I and my two companions joined the tour in progress in Lucerne. Steady rain was disappointing but did not detract from the overall appreciation of the city. Lucerne is likely the most beautiful city in Switzerland and one of the prettiest in Europe. It hosts a marvelous architectural mix including buildings in Baroque and Renaissance design. Others have a strong medieval influence with many painted in tromp l’oeil fashion, a style which creates an illusion that the painted item exists in 3 dimensions and therefore seems realistic. The section known as Old Town transports you to another time as you walk past ancient buildings with an authentic patina, many with turrets that perhaps, once upon a time, were occupied by fair maidens. Covered walking bridges float over rivers and waterways with the most famous being the Kapellbrucke Bridge. This well- known landmark crosses the Reuss River and is the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe. It’s likely the most beautiful bridge in Switzerland, with a multitude of flowers draped over the hand rails creating an image reminiscent of the works of Parisian artist, Monet. The Swiss Alps created an incredible background canvas to the city but I can’t deny that the steady rain detracted from our enjoyment of the landscape. Due to the challenges we endured to reach Lucerne we didn’t have the luxury of time to allow foul weather to keep us from seeing as much as possible. The lack of time caused us to forfeit seeing the famous Lion statue but I have no regrets missing the depiction of a dying animal. Despite the rain it was hard to ignore the beautiful facades of the classic city buildings.

We continued by coach to Engelberg, a mountain resort cradled by the Swiss Alps. This would be the grand finale of the sightseeing trifecta. The continued rain cast an obvious pall over the travelers on board the bus. No doubt, we all shared the same vision of snowy white Alpen peaks melting away in rivulets as the foul weather showed no signs of abating. With false optimism we entered the cable car that would take us to the platform where we would begin the second part of our ascent. To continue the journey, we boarded the Rotair, a rotating cable car that affords panoramic Alpine vistas as it ascends to a dizzying height of 3,238 meters (that’s 10,623 feet for us Americans). The slow rotation allowed me and my companions to exhale and begin to relax and enjoy the 360-degree views. We also noticed that the rain had slowly turned to snow. Each Rotair car stopped at a halfway point allowing fully equipped skiers, sledders and snowboarders and anyone else who so desired to exit the car and find their own way back to the bottom. The falling snow covered the mountain and lifted our spirits. This is what we had come to see. We remained onboard as we had yet to reach our ultimate destination; the top of Mt. Titlis. The wind was increasing and stirring up the snow, creating a swirling, snowy dreamscape. It felt like quite an accomplishment to reach the summit but in reality all we had to do was sit there and enjoy the ride. Once on top, we were given a generous amount of free time to explore the mountain and the glacier that forms its base. Some of the features are tourist driven such as a visit to the Glacier Cave. A 500 foot long walkway takes you through a manmade ice tunnel descending 65 feet below the surface of the Titlis glacier. Thrilling and chilling! Other features are sports driven. This is the place for skiing, sledding, tobogganing and snow shoeing enthusiasts of which I am not. Fortunately, it’s also the place for sightseeing, view seeking, want to see the Alps peeking kind of people, like me. Despite the suggestions in the brochure I did not ride the Ice Flyer to get closer to the frozen crevices. Nor did I soar down a snow slide in Glacier Park. I also failed to “summon the courage to walk over Europe’s highest suspension bridge, the Titlis Cliff Walk.” It was closed that day due to wind gusts. That bit of good fortune alleviated the need to concoct a believable story aout why I chose to not walk across a thin metal suspension bridge 10,000 feet above sea level. Instead, I headed for the food and beverage concession area to achieve my final goal; hot chocolate in the Swiss Alps. The line was long and slow moving. Those ahead of me were ordering snack and lunch options. With laden trays they carried their food to the nearest available table. I wondered if the hot cocoa was warming in a large cauldron or would I need to be patient while they heated the milk and melted the chocolate. I slid my empty tray down the railing closer and closer to my final desire. When it was my turn to be served, I paid for my soon to be savored, rich, thick, authentic Alps hot cocoa. The cashier placed a Styrofoam cup on my tray. Watching eagerly I waited for him to pour the steaming, velvety brown liquid but instead it was clear, like water. Did he think I requested tea? Did he misunderstand? Did I order incorrectly? The answer to the puzzle became obvious when he placed a packet of Swiss Miss instant cocoa mix on my tray. Was he serious? Yes, he was. To his credit, he offered to mix it for me, as though this was a product unique to Switzerland and not standard in most U.S. households. Considering the surroundings the faux hot chocolate was disappointing. What was a Swiss chocolate craving tourist to do? My solution was to go to the next floor which could be better known as the Lindt Level. Here, I was in chocolate heaven! Tobleron, the chocolate covered honey and almond nougat Swiss treat was also featured. In fact, it was oversized to where it would require both arms to hoist their biggest bar. I stocked up on chocolate gifts for friends and family and purchased a huge bar of Lindt chocolate for myself. My intention was to melt it and make my own hot chocolate. Despite the rough start, any day that ends with a large bar of chocolate should be considered a good day.

Hello Dolly!

So many people believe in miracles, happenings beyond coincidence, beyond explanation. Others put stock only in the reality of what can be experienced with the five senses existing in this material world. Although I remain based in the here and now I am still fascinated by the unknown. The Twilight zone and X-files televsion shows have been long standing favorites of mine. Though I cling to the X-files mantra “I want to believe”, I rarely do believe in unexplained phenomena. Being raised by parents of different faiths, neither very passionate about practicing their acquired by birth religions, allowed me the chance to seek my own path. I developed into a person who sees more similarities than differences between the major philosophies. Our family history could be described as “unremarkable”, and mostly unknown. I assume this is what piqued my interest in trying to find any thread, no matter how loose, to my past. When I was offered the chance to experience another river cruise choosing which river to visit was an easy task. I chose the Rhine River route because Strasbourg, France was on the itinerary as a port call bringing me back to France for a second time. The significance of this encore visit was that my Grandfather’s family hailed from a region listed on the ship’s itinerary. A scheduled stop in Strasbourg allowed me to explore Alsace Lorraine, also known as “la Petite France”. This beautiful area is renowned for Alsatian wines and tarte flambee, a local “pizza” with a thin crust topped with ham, onions and cheese. You can also find a side dish called choukroute more familiar to Americans as sauerkraut and of course, Quiche Lorraine. The area is home to hundreds of storks who have taken up residence on the rooftops.  The tall birds have become synonymous with the region after a successful breeding program brought them back from the brink of extinction. As you drive through the villages, during the right time of year it’s possible to see the birds sitting in huge nests high upon the roofs. Apparently they’ve put down roots and have chosen permanent residence instead of the annual migration to North Africa.  My Grandfather was a second generation American which protected him and his brother and parents from persecution by the German regime. Despite the anti-Semitic atmosphere in New York City during that period, they didn’t have to fear being remanded to local concentration camps. Arriving at Strasbourg, our first stop in the local area was the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre Dam. It’s  the 2nd most visited Cathedral in France, the first being the better known Notre Dam in Paris and I was curious to understand the difference between Cathedrals and Churches. Our guide explained that a Church attained the title of Cathedral to indicate the permanent presence of a Cardinal on site. The Holy structure was beautiful and situated in a large courtyard, surrounded by other charming buildings. But, it was the clock inside the Cathedral that was drawing crowds.   The Astronomical Clock is a marvelous piece of religious artwork. An early crowd had already gathered to wait for the timepiece to go through its motions.  At exactly 12:30pm the Angel on the clock sounded the chime and the Apostles began to pass before the Christ figure while the figures representing the stages of life circled before the Spectre of Death. It’s an incredible, beautiful piece and worth the effort to see it. As we left the Church we were reminded to be wary of the gypsies and beggars in the exterior courtyard. Indeed, there were musicians and people dressed in their own versions of death or pauper Angels, a sharp contrast to the actual beauty within the Church. Their goal was not to remind you about God but rather to separate you from your money, either voluntarily or by paying them to pose next to you for a photo, or by helping themselves to your wallet. Having been warned I steered clear of the costumed impostors, especially the one dressed as a skeleton. It left me feeling disappointed that they would steal from visitors to a Church and anxious to move on to our next destination. However, every stop eventually leads to a shopping break and there was a bank of souvenir booths conveniently located just steps from the Church courtyard.  My travel companions drifted towards the stores but I was not in a buying mood.  Suspicious of the locals, I walked away disappointed that I hadn’t felt any connection with the area. Eventually, I allowed myself to be drawn to two street musicians, or Buskers as they are called in Europe. One gentleman played an electric piano while the other played an electrified horn. They too were looking for donations to their own personal cause but at least they were providing entertainment. The music selections varied between polkas and wedding standards. Clearly they were playing to an older crowd. As I turned to walk away they started a song that was very familiar from my childhood. “Hello Dolly, well Hello Dolly, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong.” It was the classic standard “Hello Dolly” from the Broadway play of the same name. It was a piece I had never heard played by street performers. It was also one of my Grandfather’s favorite songs. Foot tapping and finger snapping to the music he would swing his head left and right as he sang along to the popular show tune.  The music stirred something in me and I could almost feel my Grandfather’s presence. It just seemed to be too much of a coincidence that they would play this particular song at the moment I was standing there. My mother is sure that their musical selection was based upon recognizing me as someone from the U.S. Maybe it was their go-to song for the American tourists. I’ll never know for sure but I’d like to think that my Grandfather was checking in on me.  “You’re looking swell Dolly, I can tell Dolly, you’re still glowing you’re still crowing, you’re still going strong.” Indeed, Grandpa, yes, I am.