I still haven’t become quite accustomed to the shock of stepping onto a plane and then walking off a few hours later and finding myself in what feels like a completely different world. In one plane ride, “Ciao” and “Grazie” were instantly replaced with “Tag” and “Danke”. I studied German for a semester in high school, although sadly, the only piece of knowledge I’ve retained from the course are the lyrics to a song, which is sung to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”:
“Ich bin Auslander und spreche nicht gut Deutsch (X2).
(I am a foreigner and don’t speak good German).
Bitte sprechen sie doch langsam (X2)
(Please speak a little more slowly).
Ich bin Auslander und spreche nicht gut Deutsch!”
(I am a foreigner and don’t speak good German.)
Oh well – it has to come in handy somewhere, right?
Both Brent and I were confident that we at least knew how to count to 10 in German as well. Brent strolled up to the bar in Stuttgart airport and ordered “drei” beers for us, believing this translated to “two”. The bartender looked at me waiting at a nearby table, gave Brent a quizzical expression and then handed him the three beers he had ordered.
The hosts for our Helpx in Germany run a retreat centre in a small village about an hour from Hamburg. It’s the kind of place where everyone regularly talks about “vibes”, “energy,” and “processing”. These are the people who were into New Age spirituality long before it was cool. Call it whatever you want, there’s a positive feeling created by being surrounded by people working on energy healing, tantra, yoga, and other practices that nurture the mind, body and soul. The large garden surrounding the centre is populated with more kinds of birds than I have ever seen in one place; they flit around, landing on nearby tree branches, cocking their heads sideways at us, and then filling the air with beautiful little songs; working in the garden feels a lot like being in a Disney cartoon. It seems like there is some intangible quality about the garden that makes so many animals want to live here, nest here, sing here. There’s also something undeniably magical about the tiny white tree blossoms floating in the air like snowflakes, as well as the enormous willow tree standing in front of the seminar house; its long, drooping branches resemble a mysterious curtain to be pulled aside.
Our first weekend, the village held a big Easter bonfire celebration. We were advised by a local that Easter bonfires are tradition in Germany, but the gathering really just consists of the attendees standing around the bonfire and drinking heavily. We thought it sounded like a great party. There was a small stand set-up by the fire, which sold bratwurst, jager and beer – Brent and I ordered one of each. We stood around the warm fire along with the other villagers, sticking out like sore thumbs as unfamiliar, non-German-speakers in a town of 30 or so people.
A week later, we made a trip into Luneburg, which has one of the few historical centres in North Germany that was not destroyed during the Second World War. It’s a lovely little town that looks like it could easily be the setting for one of Grimms’ fairytales. Brent had his first haircut after more than 8 months of traveling after we found a salon called “For Men Only”; he was able to overcome the language barrier by pointing at his overgrown mop of curls and then allowing the hairstylist to draw her own conclusions about what needed to be done. Afterwards we decided to find some lunch. We found an appealing restaurant, sat down, opened our menus, and realized that we could not identify a single item.
In France, our intermediate knowledge of French made menu-reading a breeze; in Spain, most of the food names were similar enough to their French counterparts that we could figure it out; in Italy, we were familiar with most types of pasta or could order a pizza as a fallback. But now here we were in Germany with not a leg to stand on.
The following week, we went to Hamburg. It was charming in the same way a big city like New York is charming. It wasn’t particularly impressive from an architectural point-of-view, but it had a lively, cosmopolitan feel. We climbed 453 steps to the top of St. Michaelis church to stand out on the lookout, which provides an unparalleled view of the entire city. The church is considered to be a symbol of German resilience, having been destroyed and rebuilt 3X since its initial construction. We strolled through the “Reeperbahn”, the red light district, although it was mid-day on a Tuesday, so there wasn’t much to see beyond some impressively stocked sex shops. Then, we walked along the pier and sought out the Flusschifferkirche, or “floating church”, which was hi-lighted on the sightseeing map that we had picked up at the train station. I imagined it would be a massive structure complete with buttresses and stained glass windows bobbing in the pier; it turned out to be a small houseboat with a large crucifix mounted on top.
It seems appropriate that we have arrived at this retreat centre at a point when it is facing a major transition. After 20 years, the owners have decided to close it down. Many of the seminar groups who have hosted workshops here regularly since the centre opened are coming for the last time. Everyone who lives and works here is in a state of flux to some degree, as each decides where to go and what to do next. Brent and I, too, continue to find ourselves on the brink of a major transition. We know that this will probably be our last workaway. There have been many highs as well as lows, and I feel so grateful for the places we have seen and the incredible people we have met along the way; but it’s clear it is time for something new. But what? There’s so much more I want to see.