Breaking Away

Excuse me, but I have an aversion to hearing English in the breakfast room. It means were not far enough off the tourist route. I, too, am a tourist but it still grates hearing those usually too-loud American voices.

Breakfast in a hotel in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is a decorous affair and having experienced several hundred I know the drill: Gut Morgen and a nod of the head to fellow breakfasters on arrival and a Wiedersehen on departure. In between, conversation at table is quiet, sometimes hushed. I have never heard a German, Swiss or Austrian address someone across the room as we Americans often do ("Honey, can I bring you some of these lovely cold cuts?).

Of course, American-style hotels, such as the Steigenberger Avance at the Frankfurt Airport, are just like being at the San Francisco Airport Hilton; a far cry from European hotels that maintain breakfast as a sedate, contemplative ritual.

And ritual is what I came for. I'm here because of the differences in culture. The idea is to experience theirs; not bring them mine. The Golden Arches, Burger King, KFC and other American chain businesses in Europe are an abomination. I cringe when I see them no matter how cunningly disguised they are to blend with the local architecture because I know with each one that goes up a little of what makes Europe unique is eroded.

When traveling, I want to soak up as much of the other culture as I can and that's why one of the continuing themes of this newsletter is getting off the beaten track and away from tourist hordes. Masses of other people doing exactly what I'm doing, all speaking my language, doesn't cut it.

Some people tell me they enjoy meeting other Americans in Europe. They join up for drinks and for dinners and new friendships are made. Others tell me they like European hotels but every once in a while find it a relief to check in to a Hilton or Intercontinental with American-style showers and where they can order bacon and eggs and toast for breakfast. Not me.

European hand-held, shower-over-the-bathtub attachments are sometimes awkward but I find them a small price to pay for traditional ambiance. As to bacon and eggs, in the city of Hayward, California, alone, there must be several dozen restaurants where I can order such a meal, but nowhere can I find the fresh rolls, butter, cheeses and meats one is served in most German, Austrian and Swiss hotels.

Too many Americans and things American diminish that feeling of being part of the culture and of independent discovery. A private audience with the Pope is a greater experience than getting just a glimpse of him from a jam-packed St. Peter's Square. Seeing the Chagall stained glass windows in Zürich's Fraunkirchen all alone on a cold winter morning is vastly more fulfilling than seeing them with a pushing, sweating crowd of 500 most chattering in your own language on a warm summer afternoon.

One of the great pleasures of auto travel in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is rolling into a little town and discovering a local festival is underway. Invariably that means live music, dancing, food booths, beer tents and sometimes parades. It seems we always wind up getting into a conversation with a few locals. Though we try a little German, the ultimate success of such discussions seems always to depend on their knowledge of English.

Stumbling onto these affairs is sheer delight and has given us some of our very best travel experiences. If we had never gotten away from the main tourist haunts we would have missed them. Seeing a world renowned building or painting is stimulating but seldom as satisfying as an oompah band, a couple of beers and finding out how much you have in common with a table of local townspeople. Such experiences are hard to come by if you never break away from the crowd.

Those who share these feelings may find useful this month's story on avoiding the summer tourist crush in Europe.

Wagons, Ho!

This is the time of year we get a lot of new subscribers. Welcome. Following is some nitty gritty all Gemütlichkeit subscribers should know about:

Gemütlichkeit is mailed at the end of each month. We write between the 15th and 25th of each month, then it's 48 hours at the print shop and, if all goes well, the mailing house gets it to the post office two to three days after that. Ideally, you have the information from two to three weeks after it is written. Except for weekly news magazines such as Time and Newsweek, the writer-to-reader time line for monthly magazines is typically six weeks to two months.

Once our mailing house drops Gemütlichkeit at the post office we're out of the picture. Independent surveys of mail delivery of periodicals indicates service is deteriorating. It had been hoped that computers and increased automation would improve things and perhaps they eventually will, but for now were getting a lot of calls asking "where's my Gemütlichkeit?".

One difficulty is that each address label must be bar-coded. This is done with USPS-approved software that certifies each address and puts the proper nine-digit zip code on the label. In some cases the software adjusts addresses and corrects them. At other times, if there is something incorrect about the address, the post office software simply doesn't recognize it and the envelope in question is often delivered late or never. Please check your Gemütlichkeit envelope label and make sure the address is correct. You may wish to contact your local post office to determine your exact address. To advise us of your correct address, or to change your address, please send a postcard to 2892 Chronicle Ave., Hayward CA 94542.

In the days the West was won, advance scouts traveled a few days ahead of the wagon train and reported back on which was the best route, where there was good water and a good place to camp without too many hostile native Americans. They weren't any smarter or more savvy than the people they advised, they'd just been over the trail a few more times. Sometimes the scouts suggested the safest route but the settlers chose an easier trail; or vice versa. I see our role the same as those old scouts; to bring back the latest info. We have our own biases and tastes and they may not always match yours. When that happens, or when you've just been over the trail yourself and have some suggestions for those coming behind you, we want to hear about it. Drop a note.

(Of course you know what usually happened when the wagon master didn't follow the scouts' advice, don't you? Well, it wasn't very pretty.) RHB

June 1997