Thursday, February 3, 2011

On The Midnight Train To Frankfurt

Not very often, but from time to time, the urge grips me to go back home.

Home, to see my parents and the city where I was born and raised, Frankfurt, and my sister who does not live too far away. Memories of my childhood are not too kind, my father being a true Middle Eastern despot and not too fond of me for the choices I've made for myself, but there's my Mom, and she loves it when I visit. For a few days I'm her child again and she can pamper and care for me, cook my favorite dishes and make me a hot water bottle before tucking me in for sleep. I'm going to be fifty-five this summer. But I let her, and it feels very nice to be a kid once more. No one cares for you like your Mom does. She brought home orange juice, but because it was cold (fresh from the cooler at the supermarket) she warmed it up a bit. I had to put it out on the balcony in the snow before it was in any way digestible again, but the thought was so sweet, she did not want me to drink it the way it was and get a tummy ache. The back rub before going to sleep I refused though.

To get from Hamburg to Frankfurt, I ride in this.

The ICE train. A wonderful German invention, this high speed train, it will whisk you across the country in no time. The 500 miles from Hamburg to Frankfurt, eaten up in less than 4 hours while flying low over the railway tracks. The restaurant aboard is pretty neat too, with white tablecloths and linen napkins and a perfect service.

Frankfurt Station was in upheaval when I got there. The local football team had just lost a game, and while I tried to make my way to the subway dispirited fans swarmed the hall, their red scarves hanging like limp, mourning flags from their necks, their faces a study in defeat. The police, out in droves in case sadness turned into fury, had little to do but point me in the right direction. Maybe the bitter cold held tempers at bay, but there were no hysterics.

I grew up here.

It's not as terrible as it looks. For some weird reason someone decided, in the late 60s, to set these high-rise apartment buildings in the middle of a stretch of lovely greenery, and for a while it was a very coveted, en vogue place to live. Not more, of course, but then, we were the height of chic. My parents have lived there for forty years now. It's like a small, upright village. Coming back here feels weird, stepping back into being a teenager, staying in my old, nearly unchanged room, looking out over the forest and remembering all the dreams and hopes I had back then. Many have come true, some not. But I'm closer to them now than I ever was before, so maybe it only needed a little time.

My sister rescued me after two days of pampering from my Mom and fighting with my father (and to cite my sweet friend Emerenta, I'M INNOCENT!!!), but I'm still sorry he can get to me like that. In fact, we are quite alike in that I'm afraid, my father and I, both easily angered by the other. We should not be together in one city for longer than it takes a pebble to fall from the hand of a very small person. Like, a toddler.


Time with my sis at her castle (the castle she lives in; it does NOT belong to her) is always like being at a spa.

This time, my sister invited me to her neighbors for breakfast as she had to go to work. They came to pick me up in her corner of the castle and took me to their apartment, the one above that large terrace you can see in the pic. And while sitting in the large, wonderfully colorful and ancient castle kitchen I was told anecdotes from the Vatican University where my host studied as a young man. He is now a retired university professor for Catholic theology, and he had a lot to tell.  His wife looks like Helen Mirren. Or rather it is not so much that she looks like her but that she reminded me of her with her clear eyes and her alert, quick mind and her bird-like bones. We sat around that huge wooden table, ate smoked sausage from their son's organic farm. ("My son is an organic farmer. He does meat." No kidding), drank tea with honey, and I was STUFFED with food. Two slices of toast? That's not nearly enough, dear, breakfast is important, you got to eat! We won't let you go before you've eaten your egg, it's organic, too, and do try the jam, it's from the farmers' market, and so delicious! What, no cheese? You don't like this cheese? I'll get you another. Mark: I'd not met them before.

My sister works at my old university.

This is the main building. You know who  taught here? Wilhelm Roentgen. The man who discovered x-ray. And do you know who invented condensed soup, milk, and those soup cubes? The guy this university is called after, Justus von Liebig. He had a Chair here too.

This is where I studied. And my hubby. We met here, got married and raised our older son on this campus.

Last night I came home. I was so tired, my bones and nerves ached after three days away from home, and the train was crowded.  Across from me sat this young girl, no more than twenty I guess, dressed in sturdy outdoor clothing and walking boots, her blond locks contained by a red kerchief, a huge backpack beside her, and a staff that put Gandalf's to shame.  She seemed absent-minded and nervous, bored by the long trip, impatient. Most of the time she stared out of the window into the darkness, an uncertain traveler among passengers with a destination. Shortly before we reached Hannover she turned to me and asked if I knew any cheap hotels in Hamburg. I had to say I'm sorry, but no. She nodded and accepted my apology with a small smile. The man sitting next to me got out his phone to talk to his young daughter, advising her on how to remember the words she would need for her English test the next day, telling her to think of "vegetarian" to recall "vegetable" (which is how I guessed she must have been relatively young), and then promised her to be back in two days, and they would play her favorite video game together. And to dream something nice.

The traveling girl accosted me again, this time to ask about the airport in Hamburg, was it big, and did international flights leave? Like, to Reykjavik? Or Greenland? Again, I could not tell her. Well, anywhere international? This I could answer. London. Of that, I was totally sure. We talked a while, and then I asked her where she was planning to go.

"The North," she replied, "Somewhere in the North. Iceland would be best." I was going to ask why she did not have any tickets or travel plans, but desisted. "Hamburg," I said instead, "Is not the best place to catch a plane to an international destination. You should have got out in Frankfurt."

She shrugged.  Yes, well, it was a little late for that now. I asked her if she was going all on her own, and if she had done this before, travel without any planning, and I'm still thinking about her reply today: "Yes, but never before with so little. This pack-back is heavy, but there's not much inside."

We got to Hamburg a short while later.

This is what you see when you arrive here at night by train. I think it's a pretty good impression of our town.

My hubby and my kid were waiting for me at the station, and the first thing my son told me was that two cheeseburgers were not enough to fill him. Gosh, it's good to be home again.