In the Rearview Mirror
Very good wines are often said to have a "long finish," meaning their taste lingers in the mouth. One assumes this can be both bad and good. The finish of a classified Bordeaux from a good vintage will no doubt be a pleasant experience; but the extended aftertaste of a slug of Castor oil will not.
Travel experiences are like that. Some stay long in the mind and in the senses. Close my eyes while listening to a recording of the late German tenor, Fritz Wunderlich, singing Wien, du Stadt meiner Trume (Vienna, city of my dreams) and I'm back in Vienna's seedy Heuriger Restaurant, drinking Budvar, the Czech beer, listening to Walter Meda and observing the local characters. For me, it was a travel experience with a "long finish;" I'll remember it for a long time. More later on Walter.
Flipping through many years of past Gemütlichkeits reminded me of other memorable times; most of them like fine wine, but a few tasting more of Castor oil. Roll the tape:
A Great Drive
February, 1987: The Austrian country drive from Maria Zell to Hieflau on a glorious summer day. It was in the middle of the day, during lunch and the few tiny villages along the way seemed like deserted movie sets.
July, 1987: Werner Behringer, owner of the Bratwursthäusle, Nürnberg's fabulous feeder, told us in his words, transcribed from our tape recorder his recipe for sauerkraut:
You put some lard in a pan, melt it, put the brown sugar in it, let it caramelize a bit. Then you put onions in, let them get a little like glass. Then you put in some caraway seed, bay leaf and juniper berries. Then you put the sauerkraut in (from a can is OK). And always put in the sauerkraut and the spices in layers. When it is filled up, you put in liquid: about 10-15% white wine, about 30% apple juice, and the rest you fill up with water and you let it boil about 45 minutes to one hour. That's all."
Almost. "Watch that you have enough lard. Sauerkraut needs more lard than you think to get a good boil."
The Royal "We"
November, 1987: That month we published a few responses to a readers' survey. One came from a gentlemen who referred to himself as follows: H.S.H (His Serene Highness, I presume), then his name followed by XXVIR v P. His comment? "We are content with your publication."
He'll Always Win
January, 1988: Looking for a place to spend the night we came upon the Hotel Hirschen in Langnau in the Emmental where, after dinner, owner/chef Walter Birkhäuser bolstered his argument that Swiss wines are the equal of any in the world by opening and pouring bottle after bottle from his extensive cellar.
Next day, we were invited for a brief visit to the Birkhäuser home, a beautiful, quiet place, high in the Emmental hills with views stretching to the Alps. We were not the first guests of the Hirschen to be so honored only the most hungover.
A Vienna "Local"
August, 1988: A night in old Vienna: ...a scruffy neighborhood Beisl, the Heuriger Restaurant, attracted us on a warm summer night with the tenor voice of Walter Meda wafting through open doors and windows. Walter also plays the accordion and knows every tune every Viennaphile wants to hear. He is not much to look at and speaks no English, but Walter has soul. Once you've had enough of the Heuriger's good Budweiser beer vom fass, (from the heart of Bohemia not St. Louis, Fairfield, Memphis, et al), ask him to sing Grüss mir mein Wien (Greet for me my Vienna).
...the Heuriger isn't for everyone. It attracts a working class clientèle of truck drivers, clerks and laborers. It's clean enough but charm is not a word that comes to mind when describing it and, judging by the reaction to us, tourists there are a rare sight. The arrival of Martians couldn't have turned more heads than ours did.
...one grizzled customer, sporting one of the worst wigs in the free world and fueled by glass after glass of white wine, sat opposite Walter and his accordion, quietly but fervently singing along - word for word - every tune. This was accompanied by nearly as much hand-waving and facial emotion as Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. We later learned he has occupied that seat virtually every night for eight years and once visited the U.S. as a prisoner of war; which we might have guessed - his English was limited to American slang phrases of the 40s.
The Best Hotel
September, 1988: Our first stay at Lausanne's Le Beau-Rivage Palace, the best hotel of these nine years of judging hotels in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and points east. Maybe this little tableau will give you a glimpse of what life is like at Le Beau-Rivage Palace. We stumbled, exhausted and disoriented after the flight from San Francisco (change planes in New York) and train ride from Zürich, into the hotel's L'Orangerie terrace restaurant, looking for a late, light lunch before collapsing into bed. Despite our frightening appearance - matted hair, unfocused eyes and blue jeans - we were greeted as though we part of King Hussien's (a sometimes guest) entourage. A team of whispering, white-jacketed waiters hovered around our table, changing plates and silverware more often than the New York Yankees change managers. The beautifully poached salmon and carafe of white wine - probably from the nearby Lavaux vineyard - revived us enough to check out our luncheon companions: European aristocracy, the kind who take funny little dogs into restaurants and employ people to tuck blankets around their legs when they climb in to the back of the Bentley; the kind who feel at home at the Ritz, the Connaught and the Beau-Rivage. We rode the elevator to our nap knowing we were finally in the big time.
'I Vant to be Alone'
One other indelible memory is evoked by a reread of that September, 1988 issue. Early one afternoon, while being escorted through a labyrinth of back hallways and semi-public rooms in Vienna's Hotel Palais Schwarzenberg we entered a large, private dining room: ...our escort, without a break in stride or slowing down, turned her head and made a quick acknowledgment to the room's lone luncheon customer. Two waiters lingered at the opposite side of the room, perhaps awaiting a summons to the lonely occupant's table.
In less than five seconds we crossed the room and exited through a door near the servers. There was time enough, however, to get an impression. The person to whom our escort spoke was a very old woman dressed entirely in black including a black hat with a wide, floppy brim. She sat alone at a large corner table, the room in front of her. A solitary, almost regal figure, presiding over the quiet room.
It was an odd scene. A mysterious stranger; one who lunches privately at a Michelin starred restaurant, is known to the hotel staff, and has the clout and/or money to command a private dining room. What sort of person lives this way?
I concluded that the lone diner was the reclusive Greta Garbo who, at the time, was said to be living in Switzerland. It was also written that she favored black clothing, including big black hats. Some weeks later I saw a photo in a newspaper of Garbo in her prime. The old woman in the dining room had, like the young star in the photo, high, distinctive cheekbones. The wispy white hair under the black hat could have once been blonde.
She died a few years later, but remember this folks: Time, Newsweek, Life, even Rolling Stone scoured the world for Garbo...but it was Gemütlichkeit that found her.
Moseying the Mosel
October, 1988: We visit the famed Mosel vineyards of J. J. Prüm, whose wines, particularly the Wehlener Sonnenuhr, we had known and enjoyed for many years. We were knocking at the front door of the very riverside house pictured on the label of the wine we knew so well:
Having emptied a rather significant number of Dr. Prüm's skinny green bottles over the last 20 years, it was somewhat of a thrill for us to walk through that front door and be invited to share a glass or two with Dr. Prüm.
First though, he drove us across the river to the top of the Sonnenuhr vineyard where he opened a cool bottle of his 1981 Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett. Publishing this newsletter has its moments, but none will be remembered longer than that late summer afternoon looking up the river past the endless ranks of vines to the pretty little town of Bernkastel. Below us we could see the Prüm house. Beside us stood the man who made the wine in our glasses and whose family have made wine in this town for more than 400 years. Yes, it was nothing like work.
January, 1989: From the Swiss mountain village of Chateau-d'Oex we rode a tiny helicopter to the Les Diableret Glacier, at nearly 11,000 feet. Heights are not my thing but I would do this again in a minute:
The view between our feet was first of green hills then ridge after ridge of snow covered peaks. We seemed to clear each new, higher ridge line with only a few feet to spare. On our left we passed Rocher du Midi at 2,100 meters; to our right and above, the jagged Dents du Midi at 3,263 meters. One final, forbidding picket line of craggy rocks and the chopper was circling above the glacier, 3,243 meters. After waiting for a minute or so for the wind to do the right thing, our pilot made two tight, disorienting turns and landed us gently on a slight up-slope on the glacier, only a few yards from a waiting snow-cat.
After a ride around the glacier in the snow-cat, a look 5,000 feet straight down from a rickety wood deck of a weather-beaten shack (the scariest part for me) and a light lunch, we descended via a three-stage cable car ride, the middle leg of which is reputed to be among the steepest such descents in all Europe. We also found out about imbibing at altitude:
By that time, however, we had snacked on meat and cheese accompanied by enough Yvorne (a light, white wine of the Vaud) that, had we been required to rappel 11,000 feet down the mountain bare-handed on dental floss, it wouldn't have fazed us.
Taking the Waters
September, 1989: At Hotel Les Sources des Alpes in the Swiss resort of Leukerbad, we took the "cure," a process about which we were totally ignorant. For reasons I don't now recall, I privately referred to my interrogator - sorry I mean therapist - as "Mr. T" (wasn't there a TV villain called Mr. T?) The first "treatment" was something called Sprudelbad:
My head rested on a rubber pillow at the edge of the tub. Mr. T. positioned himself at its end, facing me. Grinning, he begin to manipulate the various dials, switches and valves. Soon the tub began to vibrate and emit a series of noises that at once reminded me of a steam train leaving the station, the Blue Angels flying at Mach I, 500 feet off the deck, and Jonathan Winters imitation of the Ohio State rooting section doing the O-H-I-O yell. The first sensation was of air or water I'm not sure which or both slowly at first, but with some force at its peak, directed at the bottoms of my feet. The pressure next found my ankles and worked its way along the contour of my body. It ended with a rather satisfying stream which traveled the length of my back. Once this rotation of feet, ankles, kidneys, elbows, etc., was completed (about 30 seconds) it began again. This went on for about 20 minutes. Strangely, the surface of the water was virtually undisturbed. Quite an unusual and agreeable experience, but not one which I think has extended my life appreciably. Twenty minutes of Sprudelbad cost 38SF ($22).
Mr. T is a robust, 60ish man with a bushy grey mustache who speaks no English and little German. We communicated in grunts. Over the two days of "tare-a-pee" he must have grunted "Gute?" every three minutes. Whether it was a machine pummeling me, his hands bending my rib cage or jets of water and air attempting to bore through my body, his question was always the same: "Gute?"
I showed off my command of the German language by varying my replies among "Ja, Gute", "Sehr Gute," "Wunderbar" and "Schön". (Expansion on any of these themes is beyond my present linguistic expertise.) Some of the time I was even telling the truth.
There were other adventures. A fancy battery charger kneaded my back with little black suction cups, and Mr. T did it further damage during a massage in which he demonstrated steel rod fingers able to rearrange internal organs without the necessity of surgery.
But the best part of our "cure" was its epilogue. Swathed in robes and bath slippers, we would pad the few steps to the warm, sparkling little outdoor pool, with its fabulous view of the sheer rock wall looming over us, and luxuriate for 20 or 30 minutes. When we climbed into the cool air the "pool person" would be waiting with a large, heated bath towel.
Wrapped in these and our robes, we would sink exhausted onto chaises and complete the therapy with a good, healthy beer.
Behind the Curtain
November, 1989: If I found myself back in school and assigned to write about my "most unforgettable travel experience" I might well choose our 1981 crossing into East Germany. The destination was Berlin and it being our first time behind the Iron Curtain, I was a little nervous. Here are excerpts from the November '89 issue:
Our attitude essentially was: smile, keep a low profile, smile, be nice, smile, get through it. But as I found out, smiles don't work on everybody, and it's difficult to keep a low profile with your fly open, figuratively speaking.
After surrendering our passports at the first checkpoint station we rolled ahead to the next where a uniformed young man sat behind an open window, his head only a few feet away at our eye level. This is the person who, we fervently hoped, would return our documents and send us on with a friendly, "Gute Reise." Not quite. We nodded a "Guten Tag" and smiled. He did neither. In fact, he fixed me with a stare so unblinking and stony it was as aggressive as if he'd called me a capitalist pig. His 20-year-old, third-world eyes bore into my 44-year-old head attached to a body softened and pampered by life in the West. At first, I thought something was wrong, perhaps a second nose had just begun to grow out of my chin, or that I was being mistaken for an escaped ax murderer. It was awkward and uncomfortable. The stare went on and on, entire minutes passed and the man never moved or blinked.
A calculated tactic like this creates a dilemma for its target: after the first nervous smiles and nods fail, what does one do? I did what I suspect most poor, flustered non-German-speaking tourists do, I turned the back of my head to the stare-down and said something brilliant like, "So Liz, do you think we'll be able to find soccer shirts for the kids at KaDeWe?" Her calm response, as I recall, was, "I haven't the faintest idea but if you'll turn around the nice man will give us back our passports and we can get the hell out of here."
In retrospect, I have thought of 40 or 50 better ways to handle what I have since learned was a form of amusement performed at the expense of fat-cat American tourists. The stare-down responses I most favor now, all involve being fluent enough in German to break the ice with something like, "Hey man, lighten up, I'm bringing steroids for the swim club." Gemütlichkeit could then become the first travel newsletter published from a Gulag.
But soon we crept out of the checkpoint. The road was rutted and bumpy. Cars kept their spacing and went precisely the posted speed. The Mercedes that had whipped by us on the West German side at 120 MPH not long ago, was now timid as a kitten and dared not pass that two-cylinder East German popcorn popper ahead. The law was everywhere. Still in the border control area, maintaining as low a profile as we knew how, we passed one policeman who eyed us with interest, then ambled over to his car, reached inside, pulled out a walkie-talkie and spoke into it. The mind reeled. But there was no mistaking it; he looked directly at our car - at me really -then walked to his car and immediately said something to someone.
Our answer was over the next hill. Lolling against the fender of yet another police car was a potbellied East German cop. He carefully watched the slow-moving line of cars, all scrupulously moving less than the 30 km (19 mph) speed limit. As we got closer, the cop heaved away from the fender and positioned himself in the center of the road.
But it was. With the merest movement of one hand, he signaled us to the side of the road. When stopped by the police at home, I immediately pop out of the car to show I am sober, alert and unarmed - in short, a solid citizen. But such behavior didn't seem appropriate here. I rolled down the window and tried, unsuccessfully, to flash my best "what seems to be the trouble officer" smile.
The cop spoke several sentences in German. I understood not one word.
Liz said, "He wants to see the passports." Trying to control my shaking hand, I gave them up along with the just-obtained transit visas. He examined it all while walking a slow half-circle around the car.
The needle on my imagination tachometer was well into the red zone. Returning to the driver's side of the car, the policeman resumed in German; long sentences, whole paragraphs. I turned again to Liz who this time was no help. "Spreche nicht Deutsch," I tried to say, but who knows how it came out.
Still more German from the cop. Both Liz and I shrugged and shook our heads. I figured if he spoke any English he would have used it by then.
Finally, exasperated and possibly angry, he reached through the window toward my head. But the hand bypassed my left ear and grasped the shoulder harness hanging by the door post. He gave the strap two hard jerks and the dawn came up like thunder out of Leipzig. We had forgotten to fasten our seat belts leaving the checkpoint!
The rest was easy. The cop wanted 10 West German marks and he wanted them immediately. He was careful to give us a receipt, we buckled up and were on our way. Three hours later, West Berlin looked far better than I ever dreamed it would.
Forget the Castor Oil
When I started this piece I intended to pass on a few "Castor oil" memories; the times when not only did things not go well, they weren't funny, either. The place for such remembrances would be here, but maybe it's best to keep things on a higher plane. Good and humorous memories are the best; bad, funny memories are next best and bad, unfunny travel experiences are best forgotten.