When we got there we got our tickets and went through an animal museum. There was shrews & all sorts of birds and a big badger. We even saw deer, foxes, and warthogs. Of course they were all stuffed.
Then we saw a room with dog collars, (spiked), and big fancy rifles. They also had a money press and drinking glasses. They had all kinds of hunting equipment nearby.
The “courtroom” that we saw next was cool (awesome). When we you entered you seefive swords but there was eight swords. Two big 2 handed swords were wierd [sic] looking. One was rippley at the blade. The other looked sharp. Inside a case was daggers, a crossbow & winch, and a sword with ^a hidden gun in it. We saw lots of battle axes and armor.
Next we saw a kings room. There was a bed warmer, a reading desk, and a coverd [sic] bed. Then we saw middle classes. The horse equipment was spiked nose guards and metal saddls [sic].
The peasant room had mousetraps, weaving tools and other interesting things. A kitchen with a guard room and a jail nearby were in was included in my mom’s favorites.
Next we saw a museum with fossils and mineral rocks.
Featured Image: Schloss Homburg by Hullie (GNU 1.2)
At ten years-old with an interest in both fantasy fiction, history, and archaeology, the promise of my first chance to visit a castle was intense. It hadn’t really sunk into me when we’d been coming over to West Germany, that we were entering the land in which the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages took place. The idea that I might set foot on the same ground as knights and serfs had not occurred to me. Early on, though, that promise was made: Opa, my German grandfather, took our family to see Burg Drachenfels, a ruined 12th Century castle fortress in the German Rhineland.
We could see a hint of the castle ruins from the road as we approached, standing up on top of a high hillside, but we couldn’t make out the details and we’re honestly quite sure what we should be looking for. Opa and Dad probably said “castle ruins.” I heard castle. They meant ruins.
Like most such places in Germany in 1986, Drachenfels was set up for tourists, but not for accessibility. We parked probably half-way up the hill, maybe more and then had a long, steep walk up to the top on a paved pathway.
I assume it was about a half a mile or so, but it was very steep, and it felt much longer than that to me at the time. I was only ten, of course, but I also had problems with my legs that made walking difficult. It was a hike, but the promise of seeing my first real, honest-to-goodness castle kept me motivated.
Finally we made it to the top of the climb.
And there it was, high on the hill. The castle ruins of Burg Drachenfels.
They’d said castle ruins. I picked the word I wanted to hear. I picked the wrong word.
I’d like to go back to Dranchenfels sometime. That was visit was a disappointing trip. I’d not really known what to expect and while I had not expected a glamorous, romantic castle, I’d expected more than desolate ruins. It wasn’t even as if we could get into the ruins and explore them either. We walked up, saw the ruined castle, turned around, and walked back down to the hill to the car.
No one had mislead me but my own hopes and imagination, but I had created such a strong mental motivation to get me through the walk up that hill that I couldn’t help but feel let down by the reality of what was waiting at the top of the hill.
Now, though, I think back to those ruins as a pretty authentic site and something I’d like to spend more time examining. I might understand better now what I was seeing, too. Even on the trip, at ten years-old, I developed a pretty strong preference for less developed tourist attractions and more genuine experiences of crumbled up remnants of the past. Drachenfels did not make a good first impression, but it made a lasting one.
Featured image: “Drachenfels mountain with two castles on it: Schloss Drachenburg and Burg Drachenfels. View from Bonn Mehlem.: Photo by Dmitry Tonkonog and Ksenia Fedosova (CC-by-SA-3.0; 2013).
The first impressions I jotted down my my note cards as Opa, my German grandfather, drove us to his and Oma’s home were pretty big picture. They were obvious things that were striking, but not necessarily stirring. After all, I was tired and a little overwhelmed. The first days in the home in Ohlenberg were even more overwhelming in their own way.
This blog is not mainly about the challenges and struggles that were certainly part of the trip, but the very things that were challenging were also some of the things that later on provided me with a complete and detailed picture of German life and culture.
Most of the time when people think about culture shock, they picture much more extreme scenarios: witnessing gruesome rituals or eating bizarre foods, encountering obvious barriers to communication, making grand errors of etiquette and not knowing that you’re doing so. A white American family from rural Indiana wouldn’t be expected to undergo a whole lot of culture shock in rural West Germany. Moreover, a ten year-old boy wouldn’t necessarily be expected to undergo culture shock with his sincerely loving grandparents, even if they were German and he American. And yet, culture shock is exactly what I went through as my family settled into Oma and Opa’s home for a period prior to moving to our longer term residence near the seminary my dad would be teaching at.
The town was Ohlenberg, or Kasbach-Ohlenberg. It’s a vilage not too far from the small German town of Linz, near the Rhine River in what was then West Germany. Ohlenberg was rural, even more rural than what I was used to. I recall it as a long, lean town, stretching out along just a few roads, rather like how some towns stretch along the banks of a river. I only remember residences. The internet suggests there are churches there, too, but I mainly remember vast countryside, houses lined up and down long roads, and, just outside town, to the southwest, toward which grandparents lived, the off-road dirt bike track belonging to the local motocross club.
In 1986, the streets of my own rural hometown were lively places, full of teenagers on foot, skateboards, and bikes; older teenagers cruising in their parents’ cars; pet dogs and cats roaming pretty freely. There was broken bottle glass and litter on the sidewalks and in the parking lots, providing color and texture to the Small Town USA cityscape. The sounds of boomboxes, car stereos, and thumping basketballs permitted no silence. Ohlenberg was smaller, with an older population, and it was German. The streets were silent, still, and clean. I wasn’t sure how to relate to it. It was like the town equivalent to a ship in a bottle.
Oma and Opa’s own home was proper and controlled: doors were closed at all times, toys and noisy children confined within them (though less rambunctious children were certainly welcome to be near the adults). The yard was not there to play in. It wasn’t necessarily there to be looked at admired either. It was just there to be kept up modestly. In the back there was a small orchard of apple trees. We were permitted to play in both, but was clearly not the reason the yards were there, and the town was not exactly overflowing with other children setting an example of what might be okay forms of play.
Oma and Opa tried to accommodate my brother and me. We could play cards or chess in the living room, but Legos and paper airplanes were for the backroom. They bought us a kickball, the world’s best orange-and-black kickball that still survives today as “Germany Ball.” They bought pop and orange juice to drink. It was in little tiny cans with Donald Duck on them, stored at room temperature in the basement. They bought foods that we would like, such as hot dogs — except that these were bland, overly plump, overly long German hot dogs that we could barely gag down.
Food in general was a central challenge to my world. Most food was boiled or baked, and seasoning seemed to be limited to salt, lemon juice, and capers. Roast beef with sour cream. Boiled fish from the fish-monger who wandered through the village with a cart, selling various fish and eels, presumably caught in the Rhine or nearby streams thereof. There was corn, an attempted accommodation for my taste preferences, and there were always boiled potatoes.
These were not the firm, white potatoes I was used to from, of which I was a big fan, nor even what passed at the time for “yellow” potatoes in American grocery stores. They were soft, yellow potatoes with a unique flavor and an almost crumbly texture. They were, as near as I can figure, the class of German potato known as Mehlig Kochend, or starchy potatoes. Having my potatoes “messed with” like that was an unsettling assault on core concepts of food and dining.
Culture is a full sensory experience, though. For instance: the bathroom was not fan-ventilated so a window was kept open for constant fresh air. It was fall when we were first there, so the air was chilly, but the window was still open. Even later on, when we came back in the winter, the window was open. There is a particular feeling and and fresh scent associated with that bathroom that I can still conjure up with no effort three decades later and the right kind of fall breeze often brings it back to me.
One other sensory experience might help bring home the confusion that always makes culture shock difficult to sort through. If it were as simple as, “German culture is proper and orderly,” then I could have learned. Instead, there was a a dirty, muddy motocross track not far from Oma and Opa’s house. In fact, we could sometimes hear the action at the track. In fact, one of my strongest memories of our time there, from a visit back to Ohelnberg later in our stay, is of sitting in the closed-off, personality-less dining room, eating roast beef with sour cream and boiled yellow potatoes, having our quietly proper German family moment while hearing the sounds of dirt bikes growling around the off-road track, the continuation of a dirty and uncontrolled event that my grandfather had enthusiastically taken us to earlier that very day. As a ten year-old, the contrast between was bewildering.
Ticket for Ohlenberg Moto-Cross event in 1986, printed on a business card. Photo by NSC (2017). Original author unknown.
Advertising sheet for Ohlenberg Moto-Cross event in 1986. Photo by NSC (2017). Original author unknown.
Advertising page from within program for Ohlenberg Moto-Cross event in 1986. Photo by NSC (2017).
In 1986, my dad took a sabbatical from his usual university work in the United States to pursue professional development by teaching for a term at a seminary in rural West Germany. He’d taken several trips of some length before, but this would be several months and so he made arrangements to take our whole family with him. Family friends would live in our house, freeing our family of four to travel together to Germany. My mom was already homeschooling my younger brother and I had just completed elementary school, so she could home teach me for the beginning of my middle school education in Germany.
We flew Icelandair [sic]. I have a vague recollection of minor delays on the way out. I remember, too, that we got dinner on the flight. It was chicken cacciatore in white sauce, something my parents never cooked at home. I distinctly remember that I thought it tasted winy and since my parents didn’t cook with wine at all, I felt a little guilty eating it. I was too young for alcohol! I didn’t finish it. It tasted fine, but I was sure I was breaking a rule against ten-years old’s eating wine-cooked food. I couldn’t figure out why no one seemed to notice.
Just out of fifth grade, I didn’t really grasp the idea of different countries around the world having unique airlines based within their borders. I was used to Delta, United, American, Northwest, US Air, Continental, and PanAm. I was vaguely aware of a few non-US airlines: British Airways (which seemed very upper-class), Aeoroflot (which seemed like “cheap Soviet goods”), and Lufthansa (which only made sense to me because I had German family and so Germany was part of my extended world). The very idea of Iceland having an airline seemed quaint, and I had an assumption that it was necessarily an “off brand.”
That said, Iceland itself seemed very exotic to me and one of the perks of flying Icelandair at the time was a planned fuel stop in Reykjavík, Iceland. It didn’t really register to me that stopping for fuel at an airport is not really the same as visiting a country. I was just excited about going to the frozen homeland of a people descended from Viking explorers. Before I let myself go to sleep over the Atlantic, I made sure that my parents agreed to wake me up when we landed in Reykjavík so that I wouldn’t miss it the snow, ice, and Viking ghosts.
When I woke up the next morning in bright sunshine, I immediately realized that we must be past Iceland, a stop scheduled for the middle of the night. As a kid, of course, I assumed my parents had decided to prioritize my sleeping over my exploring foreign lands. In fact, because of our delays in getting out of the Midwest and because of some great fuel efficiency that meant the stop was not strictly necessary, the pilot had decided to bypass Reykjavík altogether.
To save money, because of where in West Germany we were headed, we actually flew in Luxembourg rather than directly to our destination. In Luxembourg, we hopped on a bus to Germany, where Opa, my German grandfather, would pick us us up and take us to the family homestead for a while before we moved out to the village where we would live during the school term of the seminary.
I was only ten years-old, but curious and raised by world-wise parents, so my awareness of the Cold War was a little greater than most of my peers in that post bomb-drill period of Soviet-American tensions. Nevertheless, it was still mostly “over there” (in Eastern Europe) or “up there” (among the stars, where the spy satellites roamed. My awareness of other conflicts, such as those with the Middle East was almost non-existent and certainly at a great emotional distance.
And then, as I recall memories from thirty years ago, the bus ride woke me up to the condition of the world. More precisely, it was when the bus was stopped by armed men. It was probably the border crossing between Luxembourg and Germany, but I don’t recall specifically. Wherever it was, men I took to be soldiers came onto the bus and they pulled my dad off, along with several other men.
It was 1986. There’d been a few aircraft hijackings a year for a while – Palestinians, Sikhs, Balkan rebels. Almost all of them bearded men. Maybe there was a specific threat. Maybe it was a general precaution. Maybe it wasn’t even tied to terrorism, but the murmurs on the bus were certainly that the authorities were profiling bearded men for close inspection. Those murmurs seemed to suggest that it was tied to Palestinian threats: Arabs who hid behind beards and shadows.
Dad had a beard. He also had a keffiyeh at home, had been to the Middle East more than once, and had audio cassette tapes at home for learning Arabic. He was, in my estimation, a doomed man. And we, stranded in western Europe without him, were a doomed family.
I’m not sure how long it lasted. It probably wasn’t very long. It seemed like forever to me at the time, though. I sat inside the bus, watching the soldiers check over the papers the bearded men they had pulled aside. I remember having the impression that the soldiers were serious but not panicked. I remember, too, the impression that there search and inspection was not particularly systematic.
As I watched, I went back and forth between general fear for my dad and intense curiosity as to who among the men were the actual terrorists. The idea of a general, profile-based search didn’t occur to me. I was used to detectives working on a targeted searches and ferreting out their suspects and unmasking them for all to see.
When the soldiers (border guards?) released all the bearded men and set us on our way into Germany, my first response was naturally relief that Dad was back with us. My second was relief that there was no terrorist on the bus with us. The third was disappointment that there was no terrorist on the bus with us. All that set up and no pay-off! The Three Investigators would have found, if not a terrorist, at least a jewel thief or a con artist.
In one stroke, I learned that there was both more and and less conflict in the world that I had previously considered.
Featured image: Icelandair Boeing Jet photo by Steve Fitzgerald (1983; GFDL 1.2)