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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Day 16: Rowing the river Saar

Saarland, Saarburg, Saarbrücken all have a really obvious common theme: the river Saar. Today we rowed on it. My grandparents have been into rowing since the fifties. My aunt was rowed off after her wedding (cheaper, and cooler, than a limo), she went to the LA Olympics in ‘84 for rowing, my mom tells me many stories of rowing. It’s kind of a big deal, here in Germany and especially in my family. So, of course, I’ve never done it before, and was pretty unprepared.

The day started like an early morning: I called my little sister to wish her a happy birthday before she went to sleep in Alaska, I gathered the rest of my drying laundry, and got ready to head out the door. At 8:20 my grandmother came in looking very concerned, and said, “Are you ready? Papi is waiting.” I said, “No, I’m not ready, I was told to be ready by 8:30. If you wanted me to be ready by 8:20 you should have told me 8:20. I’ll won’t be late, but I’m not ready yet.” This kind of conversation is very common with my grandparents, and drives me nuts. We were in the car by 8:30.

I tried to explain the concept of “letting the car warm up” to my grandmother: you start it a few minutes before you intend to start driving, then you put your stuff in the back, scrape the ice off the windshield, turn the defrost on, settle in, and by the time you put the car into gear, the engine is warm, the windshield doesn’t fog up, and both you and the car are happier!” She said that she understood, but she still got into the driver's seat, put the key in the ignition, and sat there without starting the car as I scraped the windshield, motioning for her to start the car, put stuff in the back, told her to start the car, etc. From the backseat (yes, I know), I told my grandfather how to turn the dials to defrost, as our breath fogged up the frozen car and my grandmother drove the stick shift the way Amy says I do. I wonder how many years they’ve owned the car without making use of the defrost function…?
Not my grandparents car, but one nearby, also frosty.

My grandfather and I met up with the rest of the rowing crew, got the boat, and tried to make it to the put-in. The boat is huge, and the streets of Saarbrücken are narrow with very tight corners. We had to try several corners several times, blocking traffic in all directions, with a whole bunch of white-haired rowers standing around trying to be helpful, but really just getting in the way. There were a couple times that I realized, “Huh, I think I know how to back up a trailer better than this guy,” which ISN’T saying much, but I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t know what these people were trying to do or say, and since my grandfather already talks to me like I’m an imbecile, I’d really wasn’t willing to call more attention on myself with the high risk of not doing what the Germans were jabbering on about.

The drive to the put-in was somewhat trying, as my grandfather kept pointing things out, like, “There’s the industrial area,” and “Now we’re crossing the river.” Yes, I can see these things for myself. I’d love to hear about things that I cannot observe with my own two eyes, such as, “This area was home to Germany’s biggest munitions plant during the war and was bombed five times,” or, “I proposed to your grandmother on this bridge,” but no such luck. Just really obvious things that I can figure out for myself without even trying. Noun identification.

WWII memorial and abandoned abbey:

The language difference really sucks. Rowing is hard enough, I imagine, as a first timer who understands the rudder man yelling things like “Oars back…. Now! Now! Now!…. Rowers halt!” Since I didn’t know these words though, I was just left banging my oars into everybody else’s until I got the rhythm by staring at everyone else’s and shutting all the jabber from my head.

Gisela: the woman on my left

The woman sitting on my left tried to tell me helpful things like, “You don’t have to push the oars into the water, just pull them back,” and, “’to drink’ is an irregular verb,” which were extremely kind, but immediately threw me off rhythm. Once I did get into the rhythm, however, she started doing some really good one-on-one German tutoring, and I could see some really beautiful scenery: vineyards, little itty bitty farms, and old buildings being my favorites.

The Saar, untouched by man, must have been much different than it is now. We went through two 10-14 meter locks like it was the Erie Canal, and they made me feel, well, really small when we were at the bottom and could hear and see huge doors moving. I think there must have been concrete or brick-wall armored “shores” on one side or both the entire way. On it’s own… the Saar might have been a much faster, shallower, and clearer river that flooded often.

We got to Saarburg, and it was beautiful. There were vineyards on the hill, old buildings above, an ancient church and an old one, a really old castle with a tower, and little flats of mismatched heights, colors, and architecture bumping shoulders on the shore. This was all lit by a fantastic low sun after a day of drizzle, winds, and cloudiness. As is the way with large groups, we did a lot of standing around trying to figure out what to do. Finally, however, we got up to our schwanky hotel in Saarburg. As the names were read off the provided list, “Marion und die Enkelin” was called out. Everyone laughed because I have a name, Kirsten, I am not just “the granddaugher,” and I don’t think Marion was quite old enough to be comfortable with the idea of a 22 year old “granddaughter.”

We had an hour to kill before dinner, so I changed and took off while everyone else showered and put on makeup. I tried to walk to the highest point I could get within range of our restaurant, looked out on the Saar, vineyards, and the quaintly mismatched buildings of the town. At one point, an ATV and a jacked up truck screamed by, and I felt so jarred by this touch of home. I’ve only seen BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Volkwagons, and Opels thus far.

I wandered over to the old church nearby, and I don’t remember it’s name, but I remember these interesting things:
-The church had a recorded parish on the 1320’s, which means it was built then or before.
-Lots of historical things happened, only described in German
-The roof and some walls were destroyed in 1944 during an air raid of the Saar

I really wanted to go in it, but I was too late. It’s interesting, a lot of Germans carry this national guilt about the holocaust, and I feel pangs of national guilt when I hear about all the old and beautiful buildings that America destroyed during the war or the bug that came from America and nearly wiped out all of European wine crops in the mid-19th century. I’m not personally responsible, nothing can be gone, but I still feel embarrassed nonetheless.

I walked down to the sound of rushing water, and found a huge waterfall (not a ton of water, just a large drop and loud noise) right in the heart of town. There were water wheels at the bottom of what looked to me like a sluice contraption. Looking around at the soft light, the old buildings, the cobblestone streets, tiny cafes, and European cars, I thought to myself, “This is the most romantic city. Many cities declare themselves the most romantic, but what does Omaha or Venice have on this?” Note: I have never been to Omaha or Venice. It was just so… perfect.

I got back to the restaurant, Wirtshaus zum Pferdemarkt, which was halfway in a dungeon-basement. Remember Boodle’s fancy stone basement before it went kablooey? It was kind of like that, except redder. I remember sandstone, but everything here is shale, so it might have been reddish shale or something. The menu, as usual, was almost unintelligible to me, between the Deutsch and the gothic font. I realized that I had two options: crappy salad or meat’n’potatoes in one of 20 incarnations. I chose leberknoedel. I thought knoedel just meant potato-bready baked dumpling, which last time I ate it was delicious. I should have thought harder- would sauerkraut and kartoffel (potatoes) come with yet another white thing, leaving the meat high and dry? Here, knoedel was a meat dumpling. It was delicious, and I even ate some sauerkraut.
My grandfather asked me, “Do you want to sightsee in Saarburg tomorrow, or row with the rest of the group for the day trip down the Saar?” I told him I’d like to row. “Well, you don’t have to row tomorrow, and we can still do the wine tour with the group in the evening tomorrow night, I could show you Saarburg tomorrow. What do you want to do?” I repeated that I wanted to row tomorrow. Then he said, “Well, my feet got wet today, but really, I can do whatever you want to do. What do you want to do?” This third time, I realized that he wasn’t asking what I wanted to do, he just was making sure that I declared what he wants to do as what I want to do. As soon as I told him we could sightsee in Saarburg, he went back to his seat.

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