Travel To Germany's Black Forest, London, Changes the Soul
By Andre Hagestedt
(Freiburg, Germany) - My first memory of traveling to Germany was in the early 70’s – 1973 to be exact. I was in between fourth and fifth grade, ten years old, and it was the single biggest eye-opening event of my entire life. There was this sensation I’ll never entirely forget, although it’s become fuzzier and fuzzier over the decades. Something like an enormous wave of epiphany washing over; literally a feeling of having your mind blown. Indeed, your sense of reality was suddenly altered. Everything I was seeing and encountering was so new compared to my bland existence in suburban Salem, Oregon that my head was quite literally spinning. It was dizzying. It was intoxicating. It was a very real rush: this palpable feeling of a major sea change in your existence. It went beyond simply seeing new stuff. I felt vastly different.
All this really started with the flight over, which went from Portland straight to London. For anyone, a 24-hour flight was trying, to say the least. For a ten-year-old, it was a cramped, coffin-like living hell. I don’t doubt my mother lost her patience a few times over. Still, here was the first wave of reality-robbing: it was mind-altering to see all these massive aircraft and then actually be inside of one.
I distinctly remember my brother (eight years old) and I taking advantage of the seats that could recline a tad. At one point, we amused ourselves by using this mechanism to annoy the hell out of the people behind us, once they had received their meal. We would abruptly jerk the seat back and forth so their food would move in a most annoying fashion. We giggled heartily at this, but I believe we were busted pretty bad for it at one point.
Freiburg Im Breisgau
By the time we reached London, we were wiped out, as sleeping on these flying monstrosities was nearly impossible. My mom had thoughtfully set up an overnight’s layover there so we could tour the town a little bit. I was wide-eyed and amazed by London, but I remember constantly falling asleep on the doubledecker bus we hopped on to take in the sights, no longer able to keep awake in spite of all there was to see.
There was insane traffic to cross – I’ll never forget that. The cars looked vastly different, and they sped down these streets with a demonic demeanor, making it nearly impossible to get past them. We were truly afraid.
The architecture around me was captivating. To my young mind it was all angular, pointy, and in many shades of grey - nothing at all like what I was used to in the States. All those Victorian buildings, and older ones, were an explosive wave of new sights. Plus, London was bustling in a way I had never seen before, simply buzzing with people, cars and a sense of energy that was daunting, yet mesmerizing, to a young one like myself.
This was the London of Austin Powers, baby. It was mod. It was hot. It was awesome. It’s intoxicating to think now that many of the people who would soon influence my life for decades to come were possibly wandering around London in this period: members of Yes, King Crimson, David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Monty Python, Peter Murphy and Jethro Tull. I might've brushed past them and not even known.
The next day, we hung around Heathrow for what seemed like a day. It was here, with my mind fresh from a better night’s sleep, I first began to have that feeling of my brain being intellectually and emotionally stretched, as if I was suddenly grasping how big the world, indeed the universe, might actually be. I looked around me and was flooded with that reality-shifting sensation, and I fully realized what I was feeling then and there, in Heathrow.
That feeling is one I’ve been addicted to ever since, always seeking it out while discovering new knowledge, music, places or whatever else.
Finally, we make it to Germany – where I was born and where my mother was from – landing in Stuttgart. We stayed first with some family members in a town right next to the airport. While I don’t remember much of this village, I do remember being blown away by the décor and stereo equipment in my 14-year-old cousin’s room. Everything was so – well, European – and the sound devices were sleek and futuristic. Her rock idol posters intrigued me, something that I suppose helped set the tone for my eventual career path as a music journalist.
The supermarkets were intensely interesting as well. They were more like what we see today here in the States, those with an upscale vibe. Whereas stores I knew in Salem, Oregon (and perhaps this is just the nature of a smaller town in 1973) were ruddy and basic by comparison.
Especially memorable were the wild thunder storms of the region during the summer. The most intense of it took place at some public park or zoo in Stuttgart, where we were forced inside, underneath a tent, as horrendous, apocalyptic lightning exploded directly overhead. It was the loudest and most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. We didn’t get this in northwest Oregon.
We spent the bulk of our time at my grandmother’s place near Freiburg im Breisgau, in the Black Forest, and in Freiburg itself. This sizable town my mother described as being about the size of Salem – but with something like three times the amount of people crammed into it. The smells of this place have stuck in my head my whole life: that engaging aroma of the numerous bratwurst stands that populated the place. The cobblestone streets never ceased to fascinate me at any age, but I was too young to really understand or appreciate the ancient architecture - sometimes as much as 700 years old.
Kaiserstuhl region, near Vogtsburg
The gargantuan Gothic cathedral, the Munster, indeed made a lasting impression. It was beautiful but somehow sinister. It was too big to be comforting like regular churches, and too covered in creepy gargoyles and other monster statues. I think even then I sensed the endless array of injustices and deplorable conditions that the citizens of this town must’ve lived through, via this structure. Still, it was nothing short of awe inspiring.
Most mesmerizing were the little streams running through the tiny streets of Freiburg, zipping through concrete structures embedded in the streets. They’re not some sort of sewage system as first impressions often conjure, but waterways filled from a nearby river. It took a lot of self-discipline at this age – and yelling at from Mom - to not splash in them continually.
More memorable was staying at my grandmother’s nearby, in a tiny town called Kollnau. There were what seemed an endless selection of waterways with walkways over them and next to them. It was summer in a countryside town, albeit a different nation. Back then, there were a plethora of hiking paths through lush green hills surrounding the village. You could tell you were in the Black Forest. These were later filled up by neighborhood developments, as I sadly discovered when visiting in 1982.
The thing that stuck with me most about that area was the Ruine Kastelburg – the ruins of a 13th century castle up on a hill near Kollnau, hovering over the neighboring town of Waldkirch. It was a source of endless fascination for me, with its craggy leftovers of walls and ramparts, great, shaky-looking arches that outlined where parts of the structure once stood, and spooky windows where you could peek inside the rubble-filled interior and almost see ghosts. There were still some remnants of a stone spiral staircase visible, and I kept picturing people of the time wandering up and down in the dark with only a candle to light their way.
It’s not a famous castle by any means, nor a major landmark for any historical events, but I’ve often found the most obscure places make for the most interesting.
At night, it was lit up by a host of lamps so that when you approached the town from one direction, you’d see this glowing object sitting high in the darkness, as if it was floating there. My most searing memory of that trip is seeing this ghostly visage for the first time: an otherworldly castle hovering in the air above town.
We also goofed around my grandfather’s houseboat that sat in a river off Wurzburg (in Bavaria) and spent time near Basel, Switzerland at another aunt’s place. Basel had an ultra modern feel about it, like a city from a sci-fi novel, I remember. The fashions throughout Europe at that time were so wild compared to what I knew in what was then a fairly backwards Oregon, and these captivated me as well.
The other massive element I took away from this trip was the cuisine. I’m reasonably certain it helped turn me into the food snob I am today. Every restaurant we ate at – little or large – was an amazing experience in new layers of tastes and aromas.
The U.S. at this time wasn’t as it is now – much more of a foodie empire. Back then, Europe was. And it changed how I felt about food forever. There wasn’t much my palate really enjoyed in the States after that, for decades, unless it was really high-end food spots. Thank goodness this began to change here in the late 90’s.
It’s one mind-blowing realization after another to look back on this one, initial jaunt to Europe and see how it changed me. A ten-year-old gets dragged to Europe by his German mom to visit relatives and comes back with the seeds implanted in him of a future music journalist, food snob and travel writer. My head still reels to think about it all, to this day.