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Travels with Georgia and zig
Overseas Trips

Episode 18: Conversations on the train,Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010
Episode 18—Wednesday, June 2nd. On the Train to Munich


We never did learn her name. She was a pretty gypsy woman, probably in her late 20s or early 30s, traveling with her daughter, Sophie Jeannette, who was six years old and very shy until she heard that it was ok to talk with us. “Americanisher,” I heard her mother say. At that point Sophie became a hopping fool—jumping up and down, singing, and full of vinegar. She walked over to me, leaned in close, just inches from my face, and studied me. I don’t think she’d ever seen an “Americanisher” before. It was charming. She was a little firecracker of a girl—a slim toy version of her plump mother. They both had jet-black hair and piercing black eyes. They were on their way to a Romish funeral in Landau for an uncle who was one of the patriarchs of the clan. ALL the gypsies would gather. It was like the funeral for a president. He had been one of 5 or 6 siblings, who all had huge families and who would all be there. The mother was dressed head to toe in black, “like a Moslem,” she moaned “because that’s what is expected.” It was a hard role for her to follow because she said she was a fashion designer and her husband was a German. It was going to be stressful because of all the crying that was expected of them.  I said, “C’est la vie; that’s life, you know. Sometimes you laugh, and sometimes you cry.” She agreed with a wry smile.
The mother wanted to know if it was expensive to visit Disney World in Florida. She wanted to take Sophie on a vacation. I told her I didn’t know for sure but thought it would probably be around $2000 including the plane fare. She said that was too much. I told her about the Prater in Vienna—full of children having fun on lots of rides. It was much cheaper than flying to Florida. “Wien? in Oesterreich? No, no, no!” She didn’t want anything to do with Austria. She lifted her chin and wrinkled up her nose. The “Wieners” were all snobs and looked down on anyone with black hair, she said. Her grandfather had managed to survive Dachau only because he’d helped load and unload the nazi gas chambers. I asked her if she’d had a chance to ask him about his experiences. She said that she hadn’t. He’d lost his mind after the war. Her grandmother still had a number tattooed on her arm. She said that the Austrians and Germans automatically assumed that all gypsies were liars and thieves. She only managed to cope with this situation by telling people she was an Italian. She was honest with us, she said, because we were Americans.
Just then the conductor came through. Sophie and her mother immediately hushed. He was of medium height and very thin. Probably in his late 20s or 30s too. He had a foot-long red ponytail and wonderfully droopy mustaches. He was SO excited to see our German Rail Pass and learn that we were Americans he forgot to stamp our ticket and we got an extra day of train travel. He LOVED Bavaria, and it was VERY important to him that we know we were NOT in Germany. He was NOT German. He was BAVARIAN. Those woods out THERE (pointing out the window) were BAVARIAN WOODS, and THOSE woods (pointing out overtop Sophie on the other side of the train) were BAVARIAN WILDERNESS. “Shortly,” he said, “I am traveling to AMERICA for the FIRST time, in an airplane for the FIRST TIME to Denver COLOrado and then to the DaKOTAS where a Lakota-Sioux friend of mine is taking me through the Black Hills to a REAL pow-wow—not a TOURIST pow-wow!” He made Sophie look sedate, and she had reverted to the shy Sophie when the uniform appeared. But his PONYTAIL took her place hopping around in excitement. He only broke off when we pulled into a station and he had to act as flagman. But after that he had to stop back by to wish us a “GREAT trip in BaVARIA!” We wished him a “GREAT trip to the DaKOTAS” too. His last words to us were “I am SO excited to visit AMERICA!” And it’s true. So many people all over Europe—even the ones who hate and fear each other, want to LOVE us. We really are a beacon of hope to a world of people longing to find peace amid diversity.
By this time we’d arrived in Landau and Sophie and her mother said their goodbyes and got off the train also wishing us well. The mother’s eyes were already moist as she thought of the hours of grief that lay ahead. Shy little Sophie made her way sedately down the train steps—hardly hopping at all.
Their seats were taken by two elderly brothers with their wives and two grandchildren traveling to Munich for a doctor’s appointment. One couple sat directly across from us. The man’s name was Medenus Renate but everyone called him “Oskar.” He talked and talked and talked to me even though his wife and brother and great-nieces pleaded with him
that I didn't understand a word that he was saying. It was the oddest thing. But after about 20 minutes of this barrage I felt like I did understand what he was saying. There was a great sadness that made him tear up when tried to speak about what was on his heart. It involved either his brother or his son who had died.
We rode past a nuclear power plant sending up clouds of steam and he went on and on about the great amount of electricity we all need now (gesturing toward the train and the lights in the train). He looked very intense. It seemed like he was angry—upset at nuclear power but resigned to its necessity. I know that feeling—intractable problems seem to make resignation the most reasonable response. We can’t solve the problems we face—so let’s not think about them.
And then we rode through Buchenwald—a small town near one of the Hitler’s extermination camps. He teared up again but couldn’t speak. I’m pretty sure Tony Nemetz, my mentor in graduate school, was part of a group of GIs who liberated this camp in 1945. After seeing the inmates the soldiers went berserk, killing civilians and forcing the surrounding towns and villages to come visit the “work-camps” to see what their “civilized” countrymen had done to their fellow citizens. It was the stuff of nightmares for the prisoners, the liberators, and even the oppressors. That’s the thing about evil. It ruins everything it touches—including the people who perpetrate it: “Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” But if you do survive and realize what’s been done to you, and what you’ve seen, and what you yourself have done, then you protect yourself by lying about who you are, or by going insane, or by weeping silently in front of a foreigner who can’t understand a word you are saying.
We arrived in Munich and made our way through the subway system carefully. It is much larger than Vienna’s. More like the Paris Underground but condensed and clean, instead of rambling along graffiti-covered passageways leading from line to line.
It was raining steadily as we climbed the stairs at our subway stop. Georgia’s map off the internet showed us approximately where we needed to go. It was a beautifully tree-shaded neighborhood—or would be shaded if it weren’t raining. We paralleled an enormous construction site where our guesthouse was supposed to be. Maybe this is it, we thought, and our entrance was on the other side so we found a way behind this castle of a building. In the middle of the block there was a single blank door next to an intercom. Georgia was all ready with her speech asking for the room manager. We push the button and waited.
“Wah wah wah, crackle, crackle,” says the intercom. Georgia quickly says her spiel.
“Wah wah wah, crackle, crackle,” says the intercom.
“I don’t understand,” says Georgia.
 “—?” says the intercom.
We stood there in the rain wondering what would happen next. Five minutes of “nothing” happened. Georgia says to me, “you wait here; I’ll go look for another entrance.” Isn’t this what Tonto said to the Lone Ranger just before the Indians appeared over the rise?
Five minutes of nothing happened. It continued to rain. I waited another five minutes of nothing then pushed the intercom button. And waited.
“Wah wah wah, crackle, crackle,” says the intercom. I tried valiantly to reproduce Georgia’s spiel.
“Wah wah wah, crackle, crackle,” says the intercom.
“I don’t understand,” says I.
 “—?” says the intercom.
I wondered what would happen next. Another five or six minutes of nothing happened. Nothing but rain, that is.
And then a burly workman in blue coveralls with a yellow rain-slicker came around the building and down the long sidewalk toward me. He said “Wah, wah, wah, crackle, crackle,” which I understood to mean “Fool; can’t you see that you’re standing at a fire-exit?”  Then he asked, “Wah, wah, wah, crackle, crackle?” Which translates roughly as “Do you see a building number or sign where you are standing? No? Then it’s not an entrance, is it?” Then he said “Wah, wah, wah, crackle, crackle!” Which I’m pretty sure means, “I hope your mother gave birth to at least one child without brain damage!” He motioned for me to follow him but didn’t offer to pull either one of the carry-on bags. I hope he’s not expecting a tip.
Around the corner was an ornate entrance with a house number over the door and a giant sign. We walked through the glass doors and found Georgia standing in the lobby talking with three people—one of whom spoke English. We learned that this wasn’t our guesthouse. It was an old-folk’s home especially geared toward people suffering from various forms of dementia. I blushed like a schoolgirl when the burly workman looked at me and shook his head knowingly. I apologized again profusely in German. For the way we travel it’s important to learn how to say, “I’m so sorry,” in various languages. The guesthouse we were looking for was near St Peter’s Platz, and not Havebergstrasse Platz as any fool who could read should have known. The workman finally accepted my apology and got a great story for his trouble about the crazy American who rang doorbells at fire exits demanding admittance. We found our guesthouse easily after that. Being on the right street makes a big difference! I decided to go walking around in the rain to get my bearings in the neighborhood and work off my embarrassment. Slept like a baby.
Thursday, June 3rd. Corpus Christi in Munich

Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, in Bavaria is a national holiday called Fronleichnam.
The religious celebration centers around the Real Presence, a Catholic teaching that, during the Mass, the humble bread (“which earth has given and human hands have made”) and humble wine (“fruit of the vine and work of human hands”) becomes transformed into the true body and blood of Jesus. It is, we believe, a reenactment of the words and actions of the last supper when Jesus elevated the bread and said, “This is my body.” He was obviously still sitting there when he said this but that simple piece of bread was somehow transformed by his words. He didn’t say, “This is like my body” or “a symbol of our fellowship.” We take his words literally. So for Catholics the feast of Corpus Christi is a very important feast day, and in a Catholic country like Bavaria it becomes a national holiday. We decided to visit the Munich Cathedral and take part in the procession.
We got there late—that is after the service had already begun. The procession was moving around inside the Cathedral. It was an enormous procession with many Bishops and the Archbishop in attendance and a multitude of Priests, Deacons, Acolytes, and servers. The incense was thick, and from the outside I could see that there were even medium-sized saplings stuck in buckets of sand and wired to the enormous Gothic columns. The people were so packed that we couldn't wedge ourselves in. But we were also so caught up in the mood of the crowd that we had to find a way in.

There was a gigantic velvet curtain pulled back from the door where we were standing. I’m sure it was pulled over the door during the service to cut down on drafts. But with this crowd, the door was left open and the curtain pulled back so the greatest number of people could at least see what was happening. Perhaps we could wedge ourselves behind the curtain and find a way into the sanctuary. . . . 

(to be continued)