Among Top 5 in India
Cartoonist,poet,social activist,development banker, documentary filmmaker,reader of books and realities,
ponderer of questions milling around.
Early on a clear and bright Sunday while leaving Karlsruhe on a good bus I felt a pang of separation. I will probably never see Karlsruhe and its trams again. The Black Forest trip had been arranged by the European Organization for Sustainable Development (EOSD) for the delegates of the conference who were filling the bus with cheerfully cynical camaraderie; I was an invited spouse. The Black Forest is now showcased as a successful forestry regeneration effort by Germany. The first stop was a place called Iffezheim on the east bank of Rhine, where there is a lock in a bypass arm of the river which is operated 24 x 7 by locking in or out of the river waters so as to enable the boats and barges (with different tonnages/drafts) to go up or down the Rhine. This has been done so that a hydro electricity plant on the western, French, side of the river does not impede the normal navigation on the river. We saw a midsized boat carrying a French flag with a freight of about 12 new cars first sit at the bottom of the lock’s channel, then saw the channel rapidly fill up with water after some lock-gate’s closure – the boat rising up on the rising water – and then watched it finally chug away smartly from the lock, its flag fluttering cheerfully in the morning breeze. It was an impressive thing to see; smartness of the whole operation spoke of sober rationality, sustainable river ecology, and practicality. Two robust, modern nations going about their business sensibly; nations with a sense of future – a contrast with messy nations like India-Pakistan where only a thin top layer of the elites sees some real future. The past is routinely blamed for India-Pak mutual death grip. Actually it is the lack of future! Germany and France have a much more tangled and gory mutual past than India-Pak and yet they are going ahead, sober and sensible. The wizened Asian and African delegates, understanding all this, nodded and smiled admiringly and also sadly. The determinedly cheerful lady from EOSD also smiled, understanding this understanding. The bus resumed punctually after the allotted 30 minutes at Iffezheim.
Soon the road opened up huge vistas before our eyes as the bus entered the rising foothills of the Alps to the south sheltering strenuously worked farmlands and vineyards. These bare hills were once covered by the dense Black Forests. We were entering the more medieval part of Germany, the Baden Baden district of spas of healing spring waters and muds. My google map said we were in Buhl area. As the hill road twisted and turned rising higher along the shoulders of the hills, more hills and valleys opened up to the east and the west, showing more villages dotting the hills and the valleys. Most villages didn’t have more than 100 houses and these were huddled together at the bottom of the valleys, single storeyed with sloping slate roofs, surrounded by farmlands. Small clusters of 4 or 5 houses were on the hill slopes covered with neat rows of vineyard plants. The vineyard grapes would have been harvested before the winter, while the farmlands were yellow with crops ripening under the summer sun. Very much like Shivalik foothills of India, the vacant looking fields were actually very old hills claimed and worked by centuries of exacting and hard human labour. Most fields had a silvery blond yellow colour, much like Germans’ hair. I saw an odd one too. Its harvest was clearly over and huge cylindrical bales (6 fit in diameter) of tightly bound straw were dotting the field and gleaming with a rich and deep golden yellow colour – some images of Ukraine seen in pictures and films came to my mind – waiting to be carted away. This harvested rich coloured farm stood out sharply against the paler farm landscape; maybe it is for a special crop, empty except for these giant golden bales – strange and surreal, waiting for an eternity, something like a Dali landscape or perhaps a van Gogh.
The roads had holiday traffic of a Sunday. Mostly cars with families for a picnic, some motorbikes in twos or threes, and even some cyclists pedaling away on battery-aided bicycles. The motorbikers caught my attention; my bus must have passed a few of their bunches of 2s or 3s earlier too. Young and clearly not so young men – no women, as far as I could see – in black, tight dresses and boots and helmets, driving solemnly in steady, non-racing speeds, going somewhere for a rendezvous as if summoned by some unseen piper. There was something about them… but our bus had entered a larger valley higher up in the hills. It was the famous township of Baden Baden, the seat of the medieval duchy.
I had expected something grand and awesome. There was no halt allotted but the bus helpfully slowed down and passed lingeringly along the narrow and winding road (originally made for carts and carriages) which passed the facades and walls of the famous spas. These looked dowdy, small scale, dull and colourless. Single storyed, slope-roofed, country cottages with white-painted walls and grey or brown roofs had no signboards or nameplates. The whole township was a small affair, determinedly self-effacing and anonymous. We were told it is doing steady, thriving business, pulling in millions of hard currency. That familiar, German, moderation and restraint? The Americans would have turned it into a Las Vegas; and Indian businessmen with their New Age rapacity called entrepreneurship would have turned it into something like nothing on the earth. The old aristocracy and nobility had been pretty crass and vulgar in their own times; one has only to see the ruins of ornate cathedrals, forts and schlosses of Europe. But the arriviste bourgeoise, rising since the French revolution, were they more crass and vulgar? Or it is just that new money makes old money look graceful and classical. I looked for and failed to see any springs or reclining bodies in mudpacks. I remembered reading and liking Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain set in such a spa. Had he come here, in Baden Baden, to write the novel? The bus was soon through Baden Baden and out of it. The roads were again rising along the hills but now the hillsides were not as bare as before. Cars and motorbikes were glinting, passing in the dark shadows of the trees.
We could see in nearly every small valley between the hills the standard pattern of small clusters of villages, a church and a fort on the militarily best hill. This was the region of the forested hills coming down from the Swiss Alps into the Rhine valley, with France across the river to the west. The talk in the bus turned to the question: why “black” forest? The answer was the obvious one: the primeval (mixed, multispecies) forests in the past were forming so thick a canopy that walking underneath the trees was like walking in black shadows. We were now driving through the regenerated portion of that bygone forest. I was disappointed to see that exactly like in Indian reforestation projects the trees though closely packed were a monoculture — trees of spruce. These looked neat and photogenic and cast dark shadows as the bus climbed along the road twisting with the hill bends but there seemed to be something vacant, something missing. I couldn’t see any birds or insects. When I asked if these were true forests or mere parks I got wry smiles and shakes of heads.
The number of bikers along the road was increasing. Clad in black boots, black dress, and black helmets – blacker then the black forests – they rode their motorbikes in grim, undemonstrative clusters and seemed to be reaching some culmination point. Not speaking, laughing or waving their hands – not horsing around like generic youth the world over – they formed a silent, inwardly stilled and emblematic tableaux: their presence alone was their message. What was their message?
We reached high up on the hills to the place we were heading for, the lake of Mummelsee. It is a small lake (“see”means lake) in a high hollow of peaks. I read the small descriptive notice and immediately felt happily connected with something old and German. About 20 meters deep, its waters fed by many hill streams had a chemical composition that did not allow for any fishes or aquatic life; and ancient lore has it that at its bottom these lives an evil and mysterious thing – Mummel – which will catch you if you are not careful and take you down to your sure death! There is a drawing too. Mummel is shown as a creature with a human face with a royalish crown on his head and a thick Germanic beard, and with the torso of a scaly fish. Mummel also holds a three-pointed trident in his hand.
Not surprisingly it is a place where people congregated, even the black bikers. I walked around a bit of the lake` shore. A large hotel with a huge restaurant at the ground floor occupied one side of the lake. There were helpful jetties projecting into the blue-green waters, and some jetties had colourful canopies at the end under which I saw elderly women resting sprawled on easy chairs. Some people were in small paddle boats moving around the lake. High up on top of one peak was an elaborate-looking, well-antennaed transmitting station. Could be telecom, or even military. Medieval Mummel has been defanged, his menace tamed. The place was full of picnickers, shoppers of tourist mementos (there were kitchen napkins with Mummel’s picture), wines, and hundreds of processed meats, handicrafts and hats, breads and beer mats. For the Sunday the brightly coloured open-air marquees were full, people sitting under colourful sun umbrellas having beer. A band of middle-aged players had been set up; they were solemnly playing amateur tunes. The sun was shining and mild. Women were speaking on cell phones; children were scampering about. To demonstrate for the heedless modern tourists one traditional oven, using forest firewood as fuel, had been set up and one tall, old man with muscled arms was using a long handled pan to take out from the dark oven huge bun-shaped traditional breads of the black forests. I bought one and ate a piece. It tasted nice, mildly salty and smelt of wood smoke. These were baked to last; the bun stayed in my luggage for days.
A lake, a legend, hills, and a tamed forest. A natural place for sunday, secular celebrations and rest and recuperation. Despite the touristy smaltz the place had an air of modest and subdued provinciality. The hillsides around the resort had been modestly landscaped with smoothened rock and green grass kept neatly trimmed. Near the main entrance there was a painted plaster sculpture of a bountiful cow. Families posed against the cow for photos. We wandered around, waiting for the bus departure time. It was past midday; the sunshade umbrellas cast pleasant shadows on the people sitting underneath on plastic furniture. Middle aged, huge bodied men and women sat silently over huge tankards of beer, local farmers having a Sunday break. A common sight in this whole trip, and not just in picnic spots. Huge men and women sitting for hours, unmoving and silent, nursing their drinks. Why didn’t they chat, or frolic, or have fun? I had been wondering. Here, in Mummelsee, in the afternoon sunlit resort of Black Forest I got the answer. Asking that question, I was being a white collar city slicker with my kind of ideas of fun. These farmers or factory workers I had been seeing all these days in my trip were manual workers; their hard labour all day in farms, vineyards and factories pushed them to the edge of physical and mental endurance, depleted their simple souls. Resting from labour in companionship and silence over a restorative drink was enough fun and deep rejuvenation. A few grunts or two, some mutterings, can cover all that is there to talk about anyway. For the first time in my life I understood the silence of working peoples’ bars all over the world – and the endless muted TV`s sports channels in the smarter ones.
We sat on an ornamented rock and watched the traffic on the road outside – Freudenstadt one way and Baden Baden the other way. A bunch of black bikers had halted outside the facilities of the resort on a siding in the highway; mostly for toilet and a drink of water, besides some rest. Some had taken off their black helmets. Tall young men with impressive muscles and vulnerable faces with blue eyes, their mobikes were latest specimens of top-end technologies. They had driven half a day for a hundred kilometers for this utility halt and they would go back from here. For what? There was no sign of joy, hilarity or high spirits in their faces and persons, no back slapping, high-fiving, or even the V signs – and no anger, or resentment or ill will. What was I seeing? Mummelsee was just one “see”. On this Sunday, at many such sees (lakes) in the Black Forest, hundreds of young biker Germans in black were congregating after grueling hours and hours of silent, brooding driving on hill roads. A far cry from the familiar, criminal American bikers gangs, this was the flower of German youth, gentle, bewildered and bewildering. A parade without a salute, a march without a rally, a festival without a creed, an army without a war? I looked at the clear blue sky, green trees, yellow gentle sunlight on the Black Forests, and shook my head. I did not understand this. I remembered a snatch of a recent conversation I had had. “Youth today don’t care for anything,” a middle aged German had told me, “and they don’t believe in anything either.” Did this answer what I was seeing? I am not sure. Our bus had arrived and it was honking for us discreetly.
On the way back to Karlsruhe we stopped for lunch at a ski resort, not a grand slalom thing but functional and practical – for college students’ winter sports. It’s locally caught trout lunch was famous. I found the fish fresh enough but its cooking was primitively basic for my exotic Bengali palate. The bus dropped us back at the Karlsruhe train station which was now very familiar and easy. We bought our tickets with aplomb, like veterans, and caught our evening train to Frankfurt as the sun was lowering on the western horizon. Looking at the passing familiar landscape I caught myself wondering with surprise that I was not feeling like a foreigner anymore!
Getting out of the train at Frankfurt Hauptbahnof in late evening and exiting from its classically made main entrance you get to see and understand Frankfurt immediately. One of the larger train stations in Europe and handling trans-european traffic 24 x 7, it still has a charming and human scale of things, quite unlike Frankfurt airport. About airports I have this suspicion that the current architectural hubristic fad is making all modern airports in the world irrational – irrational in many senses. Outside Frankfurt Hauptbahnof is a huge paved (and gracefully potted with plants) semicircular plaza and this is ringed by inner (for buses) and outer (for cars) circular roads. Beyond these ring roads and along the radiating radial roads is today`s downtown Frankfurt.
It looks like any modern city today. To me it looked very much like the Barakhambha Road area of Connaught place in Delhi. Like most major German cities Frankfurt too had been almost completely bombed down during WW II. Quickly rebuilt afterwards it has become like any other place: London, Delhi, Adelaide, etc. But in this huge task of reconstruction Frankfurt has, again like most major German cities, consciously and lovingly rebuilt many of its ancient and medieval structures and landmarks. Why? Germany might well have been defeated but it was not vanquished, not “degraded” as post-Bush Americanese has it. We lingered in the panoramic plaza in the pale yellow light of the evening and looked at the city. The usual steel-n-glass Citibank, Deutsch bank, Merrill Lynch, Starbucks, Nike, Marriot, Radisson, haute jewellery, haute clothing, haute everything. Any other city. But staunchly rebuilt, unlike other cities. Germany has been thwarted but it has not ceded its claims, not submitted. Unlike Karlsruhe the road traffic was indifferent to the pedestrians’ vulnerabilities.
It felt good to be back to a familiar bad, big, brash city but it did not have the murderous frenzy of a Delhi or Mumbai, it had the German gentleness. Gentleness, that word cropping up again. It was past office hours and the main commuter rush had left this downtown area. The streets and markets were busy with the sunset people – of shopping, entertainments, leisure. After Karlsruhe the striking difference was the human composition. Karlsruhe was a visibly German town although with some global sprinkling. Frankfurt was far more global although still a German city. Turks, Greeks, Iranians – Iraqis, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese (Bank of Japan has one of the tallest skyscraper), Arabs, North Africans and many other people I could not place, were going about the streets with a settled demeanor of residents. A tall, white, slim German young man in a business suit and tie was rushing past with his slim briefcase, late for an appointment. Frankfurt’s only business is financial. It is one of the main nodes of global movements of capital 24x7x365, in the league of New York, London, Tokyo, Hongkong. After Brexit most of the European financial affairs of London are expected to shift to Frankfurt, not to Paris or Amsterdam. Germany’s economy has flourished while its towns and cities are filling up with global immigrants. Other European countries with anti-immigrant policies have been declining. Curious. Is there a moral in this? According to pulpits like the New York Times and the Economist, etc it should have been the other way round. Germany did not join the ideological debates after WW 2 – having seen the extremes of capitalism and socialism more than most nations – and went about its business sensibly. Sensible. Another recurrent word in this trip.
Our hotel was at strolling distance from Hauptbahnof. Its windows too had, like Karlsruhe, two hinges so that opening them a few inches from the top aired the rooms and saved the expense of air-conditioning. Sensible. The hotel was close to the well landscaped parkland of the riverfront of the Main river, full of walkways, benches, eatery kiosks, and trees. Nicely done. The daylight was still abundant and we walked across the gentle, blue watered, small river – although full of lit up cruise boats – to go to the southern, “sud”, side. How do Germans and, for that matter, all Europeans manage to have such well-mannered and tamed rivers? Indian rivers’ wild unruliness is blamed at the mighty snows of the Himalayas which the ill-fated Europeans are supposed to sadly lack. I am not sure. They manage their rivers sensibly, we don’t. The Main river had given Frankfurt its name. It is so small and easily fordable that armies of Frankish kings and warlords since the days of Charlemagne could easily ford the river on their horses and take the town. The “furt” has come from “ford”. As we walked across the bridge the horizons opened up to be seen. Modern Frankfurt is full of tall skyscrapers all around, following the lineage started by Manhattan of New York, already lit up like apocalyptic torches in the blue sky how turning deep turquoise for the oncoming sunset.
My main purpose to go “sud” was to visit, if not see, the museum of Goethe who was born in Frankfurt. It was small and forlorn although still open. But then writers’ museums can’t be big in size, they produce only manuscripts. There was a life-sized statue outside; Goethe’s head was bent down in pensive thought. How little I knew of Goethe – Germany’s Shakespeare, among other things! Goethe’ was a man of many parts – writer, botanist, philosopher, diplomat, civil servant, lawyer, polymath – a Renaissance man. The world does not make men like that anymore, who open up 360 degrees of human endeavor. Renaissance means rebirth. And whom do we have today? Chaps like Steve Job, Pavarotti, Soros, Spielberg, Putin… at best; even Einstein was not quite a renaissance man.
Returning to the hotel – in the main hotel area of the city – we saw the usual big city evening sights; pushers, prostitutes, derelicts and hustlers in the streets. But you were left alone; this was Germany, a nation with one of the lowest crime rates. After the idyllic Karlsruhe, it was reassuring to see the usual flaws. There were well demarcated garbage bags’ dumping sites, but the bags happily spilled over on to the streets. Some side streets had grit and grime; some traffic lights did not work well. In one side street we saw a neon sign of Saravana Bhavan, one of the best Tamilian restaurants in India. Like homing pigeons we went in, salivating at the thoughts of eating idli sambhar in Germany. It was hugely disappointing. The sambhar was so bad that even the Punjabi idli-dosa shops in Paharganj, Delhi would have been ashamed of it. The waiters and waitresses were Tamilian alright but they looked trim and muscular, vaguely German. On the way back to the hotel we saw a narrow shop advertising Turkish, Pakistani, Persian and Arab foods. Seeing a tray of freshly made samosas I made a dive for it. We ate one each, walking and admiring the well lit night. The taste was excellent. In the near and distant skies the tall skyscrapers were glittering with incandescent pinpoints of light, looking like parked extraterrestrial spaceships of advanced aliens.
Our room at the hotel had a balcony with a good view of the Hauptbahnof and the city beyond. We sat there with coffee and scanned the bunch of tourist brochures the reception had handed us while checking in. Frankfurt was a stopover for us; seeing the city and its environs was not on the itinerary, with only a day and a half before catching our flight back to Mumbai. Each brochure was of a different colour and detailed a different sightseeing trip – half day, one day, two days, one week trips. One brochure slammed all breath out of me and left me gasping. It was for a one-day trip to Dachau, with details of transport, halts, eats, and a guided tour of one of the most horrifying concentration camps run by Nazi government of Germany during WW II for the holocaust of Jewish people. Dachau! The great horror and shame of the German people, one of the hearts of darkness of modern civilizations, an abiding mystery of a civilized Germany doing such a gross bestiality – all that – and today it is a tourist destination! What is this? I was dumbfounded. I had to open a beer bottle from the mini fridge.
The enormously well documented and filmed monstrosities done during their Nazi era by Germans, who also read Goethe and Heine, was of systematically burning up live Jewish men and women and children in specially designed ovens in concentration camps like Dachau and this phenomenon remains, deep down, a puzzle even today. I saw sensible and gentle Germans on this trip. They or their fathers did this? But the mystery goes further. To me it is a greater puzzle that today Germany runs conducted tours for global tourists to visit the sites of these camps! This is astonishing, almost uncanny – the other side of the same coin. Only Germany can do this. Guilt and expiation? Maybe. Or maybe it is something deeper; something to do with Germany`s history of insulation from the ancient Mediterranean multicultural milieu. Multicultural exposure does induce a tolerant moral relativism after all, and also a mental suppleness for creatively managing contradictions: insulated for long centuries Germany cannot handle humour and ambivalence well and tends towards absolutism. Or am I being a bit too profound by half? Post Mandela South Africa had a cathartic Truth & Reconciliation Commission to expose and digest the horrors of its apartheid era. But it cannot think of running daily tourist buses to its horror sites. No nation in the world has done this. The horrors perpetrated by the British in Asia, America and Australia, by the Spanish in Latin America, by the French in North Africa, by the Dutch in East Indies were by no means smaller than the Nazi concentration camps. But morally they have never had it in them even to have some Truth & Reconciliation Commission, let alone a Nuremburg War Crime Tribunal. And tourist buses to their horror sites? Unimaginable. Even Gandhi – the Indian Mandela – never thought of a truth and reconciliation commission against the British or, for that matter, between India and Pakistan. The cheery brochure for Dachau trip had me completely undone, as I gazed numbly at the mysterious night sky of the German city of Frankfurt today. I did not have the courage to face Dachau. One nice brochure spoke of a river cruise along the Rhine valley. We chose that trip.
Next day, for the Rhine river cruise it felt nice to be smoothly fleeced by the German tourism industry, like tourism industry everywhere – it is an industry, after all. Soon it will be taken over by the likes of Microsoft or Boeing or Kellogs and ruined forever. The cruise was 90 euros per person. Our nice hotel receptionist said she will book tickets for us and arrange for a hotel pick up. We said yes and were asked to pay 10 euros each for the tickets. Pickup was a cheerful fat man who turned up in the hotel’s lobby to walk us 100 meters to the tour company’s office where many punters like us were waiting. The ticket said we will get 10% discount. When I asked the tour company’s manager about it, he shrugged dismissively and said that for the discount we had to buy the ticket at his office not at our hotel. He was pink, plump and polite, wore suspenders for his trousers and looked like a sociology professor. He liked to keep his customers on the defensive while fleecing them on everything including the memorabilia on sale in his office. This gentle con game continued during the day. The tour advertisement had said that it included a sumptuous lunch and a wine tasting session. So at lunch everybody overate food and overdrank wines thinking 90 euros covered it. But when the contemptuous hostess handed all of us bills for our lunch, everyone looked at one another – the minimum bill was 20 euros. So it went. Good old tourism industry. The sky was a clear, crisp blue and the sunshine was Kodak quality.
In the morning I had to google the Dachau tourism thing. Well out of Karlsruhe now, I was back to googling. It was not only with Dachau. Most infamous ex-concentration camps in Germany were now cheerfully open to efficient tourism. Astonishing, this. I remembered the rampant smoking, the non-rallying black mobikers, the lamenting comment about today’s German youth not believing anything and not caring about anything, and the prosperity of the non-ideological German economy: and I thought I had got a clue. After seeing the failure of grand visions like Aryan Master Race, or The Thousand Year Reich, or for that matter the New Socialist Man, today’s Germany has given up on all ideologies and taken to money making – gently, sensibly, methodically; with a deep Lutheran independence. It had waited sensibly till it was sure that the Soviet Union was truly dying, and it broke down the Berlin wall and unified a divided Germany in 1989. What we have now is an unphilosophical Germany which has seen through all philosophies.
The Rhine river was far off – Frankfurt is on the Main river, easily fjordable by medieval warlords – and a nice bus took us to it, through the now familiar German landscape and the city of Wiesebaden. The tour guide was the plump young man who had picked us up at the hotel. Well educated and witty, he kept up his endless patter about how it was better in Germany to be a wife than being a husband, or how you were an outcaste here if you did not like football, and so on. Wiesebaden looked very much like an industrial city; but its name said it had once been a health spa town. The vineyard laden hills showed that we were already in the outer valleys of the Rhine. The highway was smooth and crowded with smart cars arching off along neat curving exit roads.
The bus climbed uphill for quite some time and came to a stop at the hill top of Niederwald; “wald” means a forest, now long gone from here of course. The hill has a plain white washed castle – Niederwald Monument – where in 1871 Germany had unified for the first time into an idea of nationhood under the military power of a general. His name was Bismarck and his small statue could be seen in a non-functioning fountain with carvings of seraphs, nymphs, and mermaids. The castle looked forlorn and neglected – vaguely like old Hollywood films’ “casas” used by Mexican druglords – and we were hustled through to the back to the starting point of the cable car, 5 euros each person, which would take us spectacularly down the other side of the hill onto the Rhine river bank. The cable car was probably from Bismarckian era and worked on a clever mechanical pulley arrangement. No electricity; probably the castle didn’t have electricity either. The cable car operators looked like off-duty peasants moonlighting. The cable car was a non-stop thing and it required clever and a bit risky coordination to get on and to get off its seat. We managed to get on – two to a car – despite our trepidation by carefully watching the punters ahead of us in the queue.
All this was worth the trouble. Once we had gone past the initial shrubbery of the hilltop a huge and spectacular valley opened out before us. What seemed like a mile down the slope (actually it was much less of course) covered with vineyards and huddled sloping roofed villages was a narrow ribbon of a grey-green river – Rhine, Germany’s Ganga. Across the river were rising the answering hills of the valley. Going steadily down the cable was like floating in a vast blue sky in clear yellow sunshine, watching the passing yellow and green rows of vineyards’ plants and red and brown tiled roofs of white washed houses from a very close distance. We were never more that 8 meters above the ground as our tour guide had told us reassuringly. Our breathtaking gasps were at this bewitching mode of conveyance and the sights it opened up. So this is how birds glide and see the world! This sight was a high point of our trip, well worth the 90 euros. We were so mesmerized that we forgot our cellphones and thoughts about taking a picture.
It was soon over down at Assmannshausen. We were at the bank of a wide, powerful, grey-green river, rushing northward, busy with huge cargo barges and many-tiered large cruise boats which somehow managed to look sleek. It was well past mid noon and we were briskly walked to an over decoratedly “German” restaurant where we had our misadvertised “included” lunch of roast chicken, potato and wines – and later I paid 25 euros each for two. My wife with wifely intuition had left her white wine alone saying it was too sweet (she doesn’t ever find gulabjamun too sweet) and I drank that too after finding that my red wine reminded me of organic chemistry lab of schooldays. For the hundredth time I decided I am not a wine man; give me whiskey any day, or even a good beer. An Australian husband with an American wife actually asked good humouredly if there was any beer, and earned a lip-curling look of contempt from the hostess/manager who said this was “wine country”. The good Australian grinned and said “okay, but also give me a beer too”. The small, cramped, over-decorated, tour operator linked restaurant’s walls and ceilings were completely covered with “German” pictures, statues, masks, cards, pins, geegaws, buttons, and such – even inside the loo! It was somehow comforting to see that even Germany could be awfully kitschy and vulgar when it came to tourism.
After this “included” lunch we were walked to an adjascent building designed as an overdecorated dark cave. Each sitting place had four tiny plastic glasses filled with white wines – the local brands. The hostess must have been busy gloating over the money she had collected at lunch, so our tour guide was deputed as the wine lecturer – which he did with gusto and humour. It all boiled down to timing of the harvest of the ripening grapes, usually in October, November, December, and January – each harvest gave a different taste to the wine and we tasted them in sequence. The December harvest is the most famous Riesling, the classic German wine. The January grapes, harvested when iced over, yielded a sweet wine – hence “Ice wine”. So much fuss, but instructive. Wine is a deeply medieval European conceit I think – not much else was happening then. Eventually we were freed of all impedimenta and, my head nicely floating with all the wines, walked across to the riverbank with many landing jetties to wait for our cruise boat which took its time since it was picking up other bunches of passengers like us on the way. It did arrive, we marched aboard to a large, white, sparkling two-tiered boat, and after much ado about nothing by the crew the boat finally cast off its moorings and joined the muscular current of the Rhine.
This was it. Despite the hottish sun in clear blue sky with white cloudlets scudding in a good breeze, we had chosen the upper, exposed deck filled with holidaying multinational crowd nursing big beers and small wines. In the middle of a wide, powerful, clean Rhine sat our crisp white boat facing north – going with the current. On both banks were green and yellow hills and a stiff, cool breeze pushed past us coming up from the plains of Germany which lay ahead of us, downstream. We did not have any more beer or wine; just sat feeling the breeze ruffle our hair and gazed at the bright, wide, beauty around us, floating down the river – the motor down to idling. This was the Rhine. The stuff of much lore and legend of Germany, much more than the Elbe, Germany’s other main river – and the Danube is, well, Austrian really.
Every few miles the river’s course curved left or right and after every turn a new vista opened up before our eyes. The river valley here was fairly narrow. Just the river itself, then a small strip of barely flat land for villages and churches; and behind these the hills rose up abruptly. In the pre-deforested and pre-developed ancient times, I imagined, these sights would have been much darker, maybe even scary. We were beginning to see every few miles downstream smallish pointy-headed medieval looking castles, both on the left bank and on the right and, as if paired off, smallish, narrow-steepled churches below the castles. So many of them? As if reading our thoughts the cheerful, irreverent voice of our tour guide came over the PA system. This was the revenue system of old Germany, he chuckled: each fortress had a warlord with an army and collected custom tax for allowing each boat to pass down or up the river; the churches were to say grace and keep the peasants in their place. The whole river is full of these, now mostly owned by Spanish and French retired film stars. He was cheerfully disrespectful and gave us a subaltern historical perspective on Rhine’s place in Germany’s economic history. Floating downriver, valley to valley, on this beautiful afternoon for over two hours, watching such medieval “seats” of German dukedoms passing by, it was cinema again. It would have been claustrophobic, isolated, and unfree under a dogmatic church, to have been a hardworking peasant in these villages in the medieval times. All politics is, at the base, a protection racket really – and always was. Many castles or their ruins had the modern German tricolor flag flapping in the breeze.
It was picturesque all the same. There were small, wooded islands mid river, with tide marks high up on the tree trunks, or small, rocky islands with barely a tree or two, being used by local fishermen or sportsmen riding their paddled dinghies. A famous place was Lorelei-Felsen (Sirens’ Rock) where a whole exposed granite hill jutted out to mid river so that the river had to take a sharp turn off its course. Our guide explained that in the old times – of sailboats – many careless boats crashed onto the Lorelei rocks and perished. And sure enough, once we were passed the Rock we saw on a low finger of rock jutting out towards the river bank a tacky sculpture of a mermaidish like figure, surely commissioned by the local municipality, to make things clear to the stupid tourist. The cruise boat also played the tape of the famous Lorelei song, meant to be a memoriam and a lament. A little way past this Lorelei business and the cruise was abruptly over. The boat docked in a place whose sign said St. Goarshausen, and we walked ashore down a plank unceremoniously. The boat pulled quickly away with its motors roaring, now going back upstream. The sunlight spoke of the coming evening.
Our bus was waiting faithfully. Fatigued by Rhine’s splendor and its brooding air, we piled on into the bus which started its journey back along the narrow road skirting the Rhine. Most of us dozed after so much lunch, sunshine, and wine. It was a long journey back and I could glimpse off and on the river from the bus window, glinting in the now slanting sun. We were woken up when the bus stopped decisively at Rudesheim and when our tour guide sternly told us not to be away for more than 30 minutes he must have known it would more like 90 minutes. Rudesheim was on the western side of our Neiderwald hill, adjacent to Assmannshausen, a town rigorously devoted to tourist trade – shop after brightly coloured shop. With great effort we won the battle of not buying any of the unbuyable things although we toured all the shops dutifully. We sat at a patisserie. I had a pie. My wife had a wedge of a chocolate cake which overcame her skepticism and apathy enough to be pronounced “really good”. People trickled back with their rash purchases and the bus started for Frankfurt, finally turning away from the banks of Rhine, whose rippling waters were now shimmering like a million liquid mirrors, as must have been happening for thousands of years.
The long highway back to Frankfurt never seemed to end. Despite everyone’s fatigue the tour guide kept up his cheerful chatter. I caught only some snatches of his pleasant nonsense. I remember one, when he was asking us to spend all our euros in Germany because he promised to spend all his money in our national currency when he visited our countries. He later moved down the bus aisle with a cardboard tray for any “gratuities” we might like to give for him and the driver. Everyone did.
It was night when the bus dropped us outside the Frankfurt Hauptbahnof. We were to catch our flight back to Mumbai next morning. The TV in our hotel room said that the coup in Turkey had been crushed and widespread reprisals had started.
The next morning our huge east-European looking taxi driver asked us politely, “Indian?” Yes, and you? “Serbian,” he said and shrugged. “Was Yugoslavian”, he added. “See what they have done to it!” he gestured with his free hand disgustedly and sadly. Nations, still being made and unmade. At the airport terminal, taking our leave, I shook hands with him saying that Indians had admired Yugoslavia and Tito. He smiled sadly, his palm on his heart, and bowed, saying thank you. Across the terminal door Lufthansa took over. As the plane was taking off my first question returned to my mind. Why are Germans smoking so much? What is burning them up?