Friday 28 January 2022

To Dispel A Myth

From comments on my blog and conversations with friends and family in the UK, I know that there is a persistent myth about my country in many a head: Germany has a reliable public transport system with trains running like a well-oiled machine all over the country.

Sorry, folks - that is but a myth, and has not been true for a long time (if ever).

Let me fill you in with a tiny bit of history: In the 1990s, what used to be the Deutsche Bundesbahn (German Federal Railyway) was transformed from being an agency (staffed by civil servants) to a cluster of companies (still state-owned, but staffed by employees). It is to this day that this is seen as the start of the decline of the formerly reliable service provider. Many regional train lines were completely privatised.

I was born in 1968, and so for my entire childhood and youth was familiar with trains and stations being run and staffed by civil servants. Train trips were not an everyday thing for me back then, but when they did happen, I remember them as exciting. In my memory, there are no massive delays or any other hiccups in such journeys.

Only when in 1992 I took a job outside my hometown did I start to use public transport on a daily basis. Two years later, the transformation from civil agency to enterprise had begun, and trains (both local and long distance) had started to run less efficiently and with occasional delays.

This has been getting worse ever since. Year by year, Deutsche Bahn (as it is now called, or simply "Bahn") publish their statistics on punctuality. For long distance trains, only about 70 % of trains are punctual - and keep in mind that "punctual" for their statistics means anything up to six minutes behind schedule. In my eyes, that is not punctual; often enough, I have only seven minutes to change trains, and if those seven minutes are curtailed even just by one or two minutes, it can be a problem to catch the connection, especially when you have to cross a large station moving from platform 16 to platform 2 with lots of people and their luggage trying to do the same.

Sticking to their own timetable is not the Bahn's only problem. Trains are often running without one or two of their planned carriages, meaning that if you have booked a seat in a particular coach, you may be left without a seat and lose money. Claiming a refund is a lengthy and cumbersome process, and people often decide against it.

At other times, trains are not just late but completely cancelled, or because of their delay, someone somewhere decides to skip two or three stops to make up for the lost time. That happened to me not long ago, and of course I learned of that only at the last minute so that I had to completely re-plan my trip (and lost my booked seat).

Some of the trains are old, but even the new ones keep having technical issues: doors that do not open, air conditioning or toilets that do not work and so on. On trains with a bistro (I hesitate to call it restaurant), it is not unusual for them to run out of basic provisions such as milk, which many passengers want in their coffee. The latter seems a minor issue, but is just one more sign of how much is not in order in this large enterprise - a consequence of decades of saving on staff and not investing properly in infrastructure.

There are plans to improve (there have always been), but real improvements remain to be seen.

One part of the Bahn I can not complain about is their staff: Whenever I have occasion to observe them at work (on a train, at a station or on the phone), they are very friendly and try their best to help. I wouldn't want their job, as I know they have to deal with a lot - unfriendly passengers blaming them wrongly for a delay is an everyday thing for them, and sometimes anger turns to aggression.

So, have I managed now to dispel that myth?

Anyway, wish me good luck for tonight's trip from Ludwigsburg to Offenburg!

Wednesday 26 January 2022

A Bit About January

January is often called a bleak month, along with February. And while it is true that it lacks the fresh green and new flowers of spring or the abundance of colour we see in autumn, there is still a lot to enjoy when one is outdoors with open eyes and an open mind.

The Sunday after our walk in the enchanted forest (Jan. 16), O.K. and I left the car in the garage and started off directly from the cottage front door. Familiar paths took us across the fields and through vineyards and orchards, and of course it was way too early for any blossoms to show. But the play of light and shadow made once again for some beautiful sights, and the 2 1/2 hours of walking in the fresh air did us good.

Droplets glistening like diamonds on every tiny bud

Looking towards the Black Forest

The village is behind that ridge

Looks like sunset, but it really was only about 2:30 pm

The week went by as usual, work was busy without being stressful, and the weather was a mix of everything from wall-to-wall sunshine (on Wednesday) and sprinkles of snow (on Thursday). 

The moon as seen from my kitchen window Thursday night

Can't decide which one I like better, so I am showing you both pictures.

Our original plan had been for O.K. to drive to my place on Friday night, but there were so many traffic issues reported for the motorways he has to take that we decided against it. Driving the next morning was much more relaxed, and he arrived here in time for lunch.

For Saturday evening, we had a virtual wine tasting booked - my birthday present for my sister, and our fourth or fifth such event since the beginning of the pandemic. We enjoyed the evening, watching the sommelière and her companion, the manager of the winery, live on my TV. The four wines were delicious, as was the cheese I had bought to match them and the crunchy bread my sister brought, along with a bunch of pink tulips who have been adding a touch of spring to my living room since.

My Mum and I

So, January isn't all that bleak, is it!

Monday 24 January 2022

Read in 2022 - 2: It's Nobbut Snow, Doctor!

Charles Hainsworth recollects the life and times of a GP in Yorkshire in the 1960s, when the NHS was still in its infancy and much of what we take for granted in medicine had only just been invented or discovered.

The author's father was the source of this book; he did indeed practice as a GP in the village of Queensbury, and his son Charlie in the book is the little boy who became the author decades later. 

The world as a whole and the daily life of ordinary people was rather different back then, as most of you who were around in the 1960s and 70s will confirm.

I enjoyed this free ebook very much; there is humour as well as sadness and drama, with real events being told. Think of contergan - a true medical catastrophe with its consequences still felt today in the lives of many sufferers. But think also of the first answering machines; they were the size of a suitcase but made life so much easier for doctors and their families, almost all of which ran their practices from their own homes and were out to visit patients on their daily rounds. The handling of a smallpox outbreak in 1961 in the Bradford area is described in much detail, and make a particularly poignant read in our current pandemic situation.

Of course it was extra nice to read about winter in Yorkshire just now, when we have wintry temperatures outside (although at the moment no snow to write home about). 

Thursday 20 January 2022

The Enchanted Forest

Enchanted - that was definitely what it felt like at times, walking where we did last Saturday, and you'll see why when you look at some of the many, many pictures in this post.

Some of us manage to illustrate their posts about walks with just a few pictures, still clearly conveying the atmosphere of that particular walk. But I am one of those people who take picture after picture in an attempt to somehow store those magic moments and be able to return to them, and then I am unable to decide on which ones to use. Oh yes, I do delete maybe one out of ten pictures when I am not happy with their lighting, or because they are blurry. But overall, sorting through my pictures makes me think that maybe just this one could show my readers exactly what I mean.

Anyway, here goes!

We woke up on Saturday to a dense fog covering the village and surrounding area, but we knew the sun was out there somewhere. On a satellite map, we looked at the way the clouds were moving, and decided on the direction for our walk. All this (and sleeping in) took a bit longer than usual, and so it was around 2:00 pm when we reached the parking lot at the small town/village of Hausach, 35 km away.

From there, we walked upwards, with only a general idea in our minds but no fixed circuit to follow. As you can see, we had indeed managed to follow the sun:

In the woods, the sun rays were creating magic views:

The mist was still hanging low in some of the valleys, as we could see as we were getting higher up:

And then there was snow! Very tiny patches of it had been visible here and there already for a while, but this was the first bit where the path was actually covered:

Behind me, you can see a sign post. It was here that we decided against continuing towards what would have been the highest point of our hike, the Brandenkopf, a place O.K. first showed me in 2017. We were only 4 km away from it, but it was already 3:45 pm. With 1 1/4 hours left until sunset, we would have been still in the middle of the woods when darkness descended, too dark to see where we were going. And so we made this snowy meadow the highest point of our walk, stopped briefly for a drink of water and a chocolate bar and then made our way back towards the car, on a different route.

If I were to choose a favourite picture from this hike, this one would probably be it:

With the sun getting lower by the minute, the mist was lit up magically in the valley below:

Another favourite is this one:
If a unicorn had suddenly appeared between the trees, I think neither of us would have been surprised!

The moon was up just before we arrived at the bottom of the valley. Maybe you have to click on the picture to enlarge it, if you can't see the moon:
Almost there:

This last picture was taken at 5:09 pm, just a few minutes after sunset. By the time we reached the car again, it was fast getting dark. We were back home well past our usual coffee-and-cake time, but ravenous; at 11.6 km, the entire hike had not been all that long, but with some steep uphill bits plus the snow, it felt more than that.

I enjoyed every minute, and the magic created by the sunlight and mist will certainly stay in my mind for a long time.

Tuesday 18 January 2022

Back To City Life

After having spent the first days of this year at O.K.'s with beautiful countryside all around, it was back to the city on the 7th. 

Arriving at my place mid-afternoon gave us enough time (after a quick coffee, unpacking and starting the washing machine) to catch the last of the daylight on a walk into town. We stopped at a relatively new wine shop that we discovered for ourselves less than half a year ago. It does not only sell wine, sparkling wine, gin and other booze plus a range of deli food to go with it, one can also sit down for a glass, or book a tasting and other events.

We both felt like a drink and so tried one of their own sparkling wines. Our entire stay there did not last much more than half an hour, but I enjoyed it greatly; sitting in the warm room, modern but cosy, with the city lights outside the window, felt so completely different from all of last week. (In the photo, I have deliberately blurred O.K.'s face, but did not want to cut the picture completely, so as not to destroy the symmetry.)

Not long ago, Pat (Weaver of Grass) asked her blog readers whether they were more country or town people. Her post and the comments make interesting reading. For me, the opportunity to have both town and country in my life is ideal; I love the area around O.K.'s village and our Black Forest (and other) hikes, but I also like my hometown, which isn't very big at about 90,000 residents. Life in a real big city would probably overwhelm me; the occasional visit is enough.

Anyway; on that late afternoon, I felt very comfortable and entirely at home in town. Later, we had a nice meal with my sister, ordered from the Indian restaurant not far from my house. The rest of the weekend saw us taking advantage of the sunny (but cold and windy) weather with several walks and visiting my parents.

Monday the 10th was back to work for me. With most of my clients having been on holiday over Christmas and New Year, I was able to ease back into work at a relatively gentle pace. The week was still sunny (but cold), and so I shifted my after-work-walks to the early to mid-afternoons, returning to work afterwards for another couple of hours or so. It was on one of those walks that I spotted the first snowdrops this year, growing in a sunny patch at the corner of a farm house.

A few rosehips still hanging on

Muddy walks with shady figures

On Friday, I worked until just before lunch and then went for a walk with my sister. We took a quick walk in the palace grounds, looking for early signs of spring. This beautiful plant was unknown to us, but my Mum says it is a mahonia.

The weekend saw me returning to O.K.'s, and Saturday's hike was enchanting - you'll see why in one of my next posts.

Friday 14 January 2022

Guest Post by My Mum: My Mother, a Brave Heart.

[Written by my Mum]

When my mother, Else, was about 12 years old, she visited a funfair in a small village, where they had some rides, such as a swingboats. There were several "boats", but only one was prepared to roll over with. That was very courageous, and only boys or young men could do it. Young Else asked and begged the owner so long that he finally let her do it, and she told me, that feeling was unbelievable, you cannot describe it. She whooped loudly with joy, I can really imagine.

This I know of course only because she told me, but a similar event happened when she was already in her mid-50s* and we were at an outdoor swimming pool with a 10 m diving platform.
My husband, I and our little daughter sat on the lawn and watched her climb up. (Meike was still in the pram.) When she stood on the diving board, our elder daughter (aged about 2) shouted loudly "Oma!" (German for granny or nana), she waved to us, and then everybody looked up and followed with their eyes her perfekt dive into the water. She repeated it several times.
Those two stories were significant of her character: She was courageous, brave and liked challenges and adventures. She rode her bike, even long distances, often with me sitting behind her on the luggage rack; my parents never had a car. She swam like a fish; once, when she was in her 60s, she crossed a lake in Southern Tyrol, the "Kalterer See". She was always spontaneous; I think if I would have phoned her and said: Pack a bag, we come to pick you up and go to... maybe Australia - she would have been ready in less than an hour!
But unfortunately Else was born at a time when girls had to be good and well mannered, and later also as women, expected to be demure wives and mothers. She was born in the middle of World War I, her father was fighting in France, he never saw his daughter and so she never knew her father. He was shot on the retreat home by a partisan.
Her childhood in a small village beside the river Neckar was poor but happy; she learned to swim when she was 3 years old. That was necessary, as nobody had time to watch the children.
Later her mother married again, and her stepfather ignored her from the day one. She had to go to work in a shoe factory and hand over nearly all her money as long as she lived with her mother and stepfather. A stepbrother was born, he received the best education.

Else at 14
My mother married my father in 1937, and I think they were as happy as could be. Two children arrived, but also Hitler and WW II.  
She did not go to work, she had to look after her parents-in-law and her sick brother-in-law (I wrote about him "Onkel Otto"), she had the house, garden and us two kids to care for, and we had a really lovely childhood. 
She played with me and my girlfriends. She had many old clothes, dresses and hats, so we often dressed up and had a lot of fun. She taught me many folk songs and when I had to help her in the kitchen, we always sang together.
When I was a teenager, we did not get along very well and often argued. But when my children were born, she was very helpful and always there for us.
My parents never went away on holiday until my gandparents died. Then they went on a cruise on the river Wolga in Russia, on a Russian ship named Uzbekistan. One night they had a "Miss" contest or pageant, and - my mother won it, she was celebrated as "Miss Uzbekistan"! She was very proud of that, she wasn't so young any more, there were much younger ladies on the ship. 
She was very parsimonious to the point of miserly when it came to herself (never with us - she was generous with gifts to us and her grandchildren). She loved chocolate and marzipan very much, but she would never ever go and buy that for herself.
Only much later, when she was already a widow, blind and lonely, she allowed us to bring her chocolate and other sweets.
When my father had a stroke, she cared for him at home three long years, we helped how ever we could, but it was very hard for her. Then he died, and a few months later she got blind, all her plans were gone. She wanted to travel, but now she could never do anything spontaneously without being accompanied, and so in her last years she was often depressed, bitter and unfair.
I often think how hard it must have been for her, and I was not always as patient  as I should have when she was in a bad mood, and I apologize for all this, my Brave Heart Mother!

- - - End of guest post - - - 

My Mum offered me this post on her own initiative quite by surprise earlier this week. After her previous one, this was once again very touching for me to read. As usual (and on her request), I did a little bit of editing here and there, but they are mostly my Mum's original words. The first photo is one that she keeps framed in her bedroom, along with other family pictures.

Me and my Oma, ca. 1970

I remember so much about my Oma, for instance how she loved to act, sing and dance. She was completely un-shy and didn't know stage fright; I believe that I have inherited some of that, as well as her love of foreign languages. She never learned any other language, having received only a basic formal education, but when I was a kid, we often played at "being foreigners" and spoke in a fantasy language (sounding very much like the Arabic she knew through her son and his friends, which must have impressed her greatly).

Another typical story from Else's youth I remember is again about swimming: As my Mum said, she grew up by a river and learned to swim at an early age. The river was wide and deep, and certainly no playground for kids. But that did not stop young Else from swimming to the next town and back, with nobody knowing where she was, just to prove that she could do it.

By the way I think my Mum was very good with her mother, looking after her when she was blind and a widow. She visited every day either after work or during her lunch break, took care of houshold matters and cooked for her so that she could pop her meals into the microwave. She also took her home at least once every week, and went walking with her when time and weather allowed. My Dad was also involved, doing most of her shopping and driving her to doctor's appointments etc. 
The way my Oma handled her situation was not always easy to deal with; as my Mum says, she often was bitter and unfair, and is it any wonder that this made us sometimes angry and impatient? All things considered, though, I do not believe my Mum has to apologise. She was a very good daughter to her parents!

*The age I am now!

Thursday 13 January 2022

Read in 2022 - 1: Lost Places in der Region Stuttgart

This was a book I had explicitly named when asked what I wanted for Christmas. I had come across it in an article of our local paper and thought it was probably going to be very much my kind of book.

Lost Places in der Region Stuttgart by Benjamin Seyfang is not so much a book to read, but one to browse for its pictures and let imaginagion do the rest.

Some of you know me well enough to recall that I have a "thing" for what are generally known as lost places, although I hesitate to call them that. Those places are not lost - they are exactly where they have always been. But they are usually lost to their former use, and sometimes their existence has been forgotten, making them lost to memory as well. Therefore, I shall stick with the term generally used, even though I do not fully agree with it. (In German, the English term is used as well.)

The area where I live has Stuttgart as its capital and centre, and so I am familiar with some of the towns and places in the region, not just my own town of Ludwigsburg.

The author calls himself an Urban Explorer and has, like me, a long-going fascination for abandoned houses, industrial ruins and so on. In the foreword of this book, he states the basic rule everyone should observe when visiting such places: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but foot prints.

He is 20 years younger than I and has been photographing lost places around the world for 10 years now, whenever his day job allows.

Often, the places he visits are not easily accessible. If possible, he gets special permission of whoever is the current owner or custodian. Some of the photos come with only a vaguely named location, because the places are hidden and should remain so in order to protect them from further vandalism and damage. Others are well known and their location is clearly stated.

I sat down with this book in my favourite reading spot (my yellow armchair, as seen here) one evening after work this week and went through it page by page. With one of the "secret" places, I am pretty sure I know where it is. Another one is indeed just outside my hometown, a place I have been to myself a few times in the past. 

The most touching ones for me are the photographs of inside a house where the owner, an elderly lady who had not changed anything since the 1970s, was taken to hospital and died there. After her death, someone at the hospital packed her belongings into her bags and deposited the bags just inside the front door, where they still are. The living room is exactly as it was left, with the paper still on the table and the remote control still on the settee. A small stuffed panda sits on the settee's back rest, smiling.

Wednesday 12 January 2022

Short and Long Walks

Still catching up with what the first week of this year was like for me; we have now made it to Tuesday, the 4th of January.

It was a very mild day at about 14C (57F), but so wet we decided against a long walk or hike. Instead, we did some household stuff and food shopping in the afternoon. There was still time and occasion for a quick walk around the village before lunch time, though; it was 11:25 when these two pictures were taken:

Wednesday, the 5th, saw quite a drop in temperatures; it was no warmer than 3 or 4C (37-39F), but with enough sun between the clouds to turn even the bleakest January landscape into a fascinating play of light and shadow.

O.K.'s sister happened to be at their parents' just as we were ready to go, and kindly offered to take us to where we intended to start our walk. It wasn't really cheating, was it! She dropped us off at Ortenberg, a place that has also featured a few times on my blog before. You may recognise the castle from older posts.

There was no exploring the castle grounds or climbing the tower this time, though; the gates were locked with the youth hostel being shut due to the pandemic.

View from near the castle along the Kinzig valley and (more or less) the way we were going to walk:

The view across the industrial area of Ortenberg towards Black Forest hills:

On we walked, through the vineyards towards Ohlsbach:

Old outbuildings at a farm:

We walked through the center of Ohlsbach, a village of just over 3,000 inhabitants. A bakery near the main square offered coffee to go, and we were glad of the hot drink plus a savoury snack to go with it.

From there, the path lead through a patch of woodland. We choose to walk down the hill and skirt Reichenbach, a smaller but widespread community of just over 2,000 inhabitants. There are many places called Reichenbach in Germany; wikipedia lists 15 in Baden-Wuerttemberg (the federal state where we live) alone.

St. Peter's, a chapel originating from the 13th century:
Leaving Reichenbach, we crossed the Kinzig near Berghaupten and walked back along the rim of the Black Forest. By then, the late afternoon light made us decide against walking through the woods; sunset was not far off, and we were not keen on stumbling around in the dark.

The setting sun lit up the castle beautifully:

We reached Zunsweier, the next village from O.K.'s, and made it back to the village just in time before it was completely dark. Too late for coffee and cake, but after having walked a bit more than 16 km, we were hungry enough for a substantial evening meal.

I enjoyed that walk very much; I had known bits of the places we'd walked through, but never really walked there before. The light was particularly beautiful, so a great day altogether.