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Archive for the ‘Foreword’ Category

And thus it was decided. Rather than sitting around in Erlangen and taking more shit from Christina Vuskovic, I would embark on a 20-plus-hour rail journey to Berlin featuring a four-hour layover in a strange city in the middle of the night.

This was going to be quite a trip. I’d been on the road since 8 that morning making my way back up to Germany from Fieberbrunn, Austria. Now, I was about to spend another 18 hours on trains in east German towns I’d never heard of. I called up my friend in Berlin to let him know my ETA.

“Damn,” he replied.

Accompanying me on the journey were two large suitcases (vintage 1972) and one backpack, all of which were practically bursting from my entire wardrobe, assorted crap that I had not removed from them before leaving, over twenty books, a brand-new, state-of-the-art Walkman that was as compact as a full wallet and had automatic tape-flipping and rewind, play, and stop buttons right on the headphone cord, and the blissful unawareness of just how completely this last item would date me. All in all, I was probably carrying upwards of 60 pounds, unevenly distributed between my back and my arms. My hands were already raw by the time I boarded the train.

My other travelling companion was the German edition of The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. This was a Christmas gift from my friend Paul, and turned out to be the perfect reading material for the long, exhausting, and charmingly surreal voyage to which I had just committed.

The first leg of the trip, starting in Munich and ending about 90 minutes north in Nuremberg, was pretty uneventful. I’d made this trip quite a few times before. The only thing I clearly remember about it was the announcement that: “This is a train from Munich to Nuremberg via Dachau.” There is something just a little bit unsettling about boarding a train and finding out only once it’s already moving that you’re headed to the site of one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps in Germany. As we passed through Dachau, I stared out the window, but saw nothing but a fairly typical small Bavarian city (the Dachau camp – which is now a memorial site and museum – was, like the others, built on the outskirts of the city). After we had left Dachau, I returned to reading about young Jack Sawyer’s bizarre journey from New England to California in The Talisman.

Arriving in Nuremberg was always something of a treat for me. During my time in Herzogenaurach and Erlangen, I spent a great deal of time there. There was generally not a whole lot to do in Herzogenaurach, just a pub or two and the main manufacturing plants for Puma and Adidas, so I made the hour-long bus/train trip to Nuremberg, the nearest major city, as often as I could. There, I would generally have a pizza or go to the Japanese restaurant near the central station, and stop by the downtown Hugendubel bookstore, with its three storeys of walls jam-packed with just about any book imaginable – paradise. Nuremberg, with its combination of medieval city walls and a modern metropolis, was my oasis.

As I exited the train at the Nuremberg Hauptbahnhof, I was immediately overpowered by the sweet – and literally intoxicating – scent of Glühwein (“glowing wine”). One of Nuremberg’s main claims to fame – apart from the odd war crimes tribunal – is its Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market). From late November through Christmas Eve, the city centre is full of stalls selling all kinds of handicrafts and decorations, and Nuremberg Lebkuchen.

Lebkuchen is a kind of gingerbread, a piece of which resided in my coat pocket for several weeks after I first encountered it, mistook it for chocolate, took a big bite, realised that I hated it, and forgot all about it.

Its presence on my person had remained entirely undetected by me until my first trip to Fieberbrunn in early November, which I described in a letter home I’d written at the time as follows:

That Thursday morning, I had left for Nuremberg at about 11:00 am, and spent the day there, since my train left for Munich at 5:30 pm. That part of the trip was pretty uneventful — I went on the Regionalbahn, the short-distance commuter trains, which are pretty comfortable except for the fact that their constant shaking evokes an image of Godzilla periodically rattling the train about, deciding whether or not to flip it over.

I arrived a bit early in Munich, checked the track number of the Eurocity train I was to take to Wörgl, Austria, where my friend Rudi was to pick me up. I then took a very quick look at my reservation, since, as it turned out, my train was on the exact opposite side of the station.

Three minutes of intense jogging went by before I finally reached my train, which happened to be one of those interminably long trains that blocks the road for half an hour when one is late for a meeting. As I knew from checking my reservation card, I had to get to Car No. 260. I checked the number of the first card, and saw, to my joy and relief that I would have no trouble whatsoever in boarding on time, as the first car was numbered 295. After walking long enough to be certain that they didn’t skip any numbers, I broke out in a dead run with a calm, collected expression on my face that, to any onlooker said:

“No problem, just 25 more cars to go, how much time is left?…….oh, SHIT!”

I arrived at the last passenger car, and saw that — to my relief — I needed run no further, since there was no Car No. 260. The last car was numbered 264. I got in anyway, since it was non-smoking and had compartments, as I requested. I found my seat number (as if it mattered — I was, as it turned out, the only person in the car), put my luggage on the rack, and collapsed into my seat. I checked my reservation card once again, and noticed that I had reserved car number 269.

Five minutes out of München, a conductor came by to check my ticket. Feeling relieved that that was the last thing I’d have to worry about that day, I sat back down to The Client. We went by Rosenheim, and, a few minutes later, we crossed the border.

I can be pretty sure exactly when we crossed the border, since at that point, several burly guys in matching brown uniforms lined up outside my compartment. Hoping that perhaps this was just the police department’s annual ski outing and piss-up, or that perhaps there was a suspected violent serial killer (as opposed to the pacifistic, warm-fuzzy sort of serial killer) in the next compartment, I continued reading.

Then, Burly Guy Number 1 entered my compartment, and said in a thick Alabama drawl:

Face the wall and assume the position.

No, seriously, although it wasn’t all that much more pleasant, he said, with a scowl of cordial suspicion:

“Zeign’S ma bitte Eera Popiare.”
“Show me your papers, please.”

I handed him my passport.

“Hmph,” he observed.

He proceeded, repeating this observation after every page of my passport. He then took an odd-looking electronic device with an LCD screen on it, and moved his eyes repeatedly between my passport and his terminal. Looking even more suspicious than before — perhaps because my passport didn’t in the least resemble a portable computer terminal — he left.

Two minutes later — they were all right outside my compartment, but they liked to catch people off-guard — another big burly guy in a brown uniform entered my compartment, followed by a short, scrawny, anaemic-looking guy in a blue uniform, who seemed a little miffed (perhaps because he clashed with everyone else). Burly Guy, the Sequel asked me for my passport, and proceeded to see if it had perhaps changed appearance and now clearly resembled a portable computer terminal. It didn’t. Then came the interrogation, or, as it is more popularly called: “Stump ’em and Deport ’em – Freestyle!”.

Wohn’S in Deitschlond?
Do you reside in Germany?

Jo, in d’Neehe vo Earlonge.
Yes, near Erlangen.

Se wohn’ oiso in Deitschlond.
So, you live in Germany, then?

Joo…
Yes….

Burly turned to Scrawny with my passport and leafed through the back pages, both grunting wordlessly, probably wondering why I had no residence permit.

I hob erst neilich mei Aafnthoidsgnehmigung in Earlonge beondrogt.
I just recently applied for my residence permit in Erlangen.

Silence. They both eyed me for a second.

Ond Se san as uu-ess-oa?
And you’re from the US?

(Let’s see now — I have a US passport with “Nationality: US” written on it. Nah, I’m from Pakistan!)

Joo.
Yes.

Wozua foahrn Se noch Eesterreich?
What business do you have in Austria?

asked Scrawny with his thick Austrian dialect. It is hard to capture the true essence of his speech patterns in writing, but the feeling is similar to finding out that one’s fierce-looking IRS auditor talks a lot like Ross Perot.
I bsuch an Freind, Rudi Hufnagl, iawas Wochenend. Ea hoit mi in Weagl ob.
I’m visiting a friend, Rudi Hufnagl, over the week-end. He’s picking me up in Wörgl.

Und dea is Eestarreicha?
And he’s an Austrian?

(No, he’s Mongolian)

“Joo.”

A woant in Weagl?
He lives in Wörgl?

Na. A woant in Fibabrun, des liagt a in Dirol.
No, he lives in Fieberbrunn, also in Tyrol.

Achso.
I see.

Burly started up again.

Ond saat wia long wohn’S scho in Deitschlond?
And how long have you lived in Germany?

So ungfea zwoa Monatte.
About two months.

I frog wei Se so guat Deitsch sprechn.
I’m asking because you speak German so well,

remarked Burly. It wasn’t a compliment. I considered breaking the ice with an ironic musing such as: “Whaddaya think I am, a spy?” but decided that there might perhaps be a near-infinite supply of better ideas than that.

This stimulating conversation continued for about five minutes. Then, Burly II moved closer to me, and said:

Mochn’S de Daschn lea.
Empty your pockets,

as I noticed what a nice, rotten bouquet his breath had.

I emptied both pockets that had anything in them, and turned them inside out.

Wia suchn na Drogn.
We’re looking for drugs.

explained Burly, as if he thought I’d reply: “Oh! Drugs?! Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Sure I got drugs! What’s your price range?”

Then, he started tearing up my wallet, and, pretty soon, the seat across from me was covered with business cards, ID’s, pay check stubs, and eight-month-old KFC receipts. Burly then inspected each of these, as if he thought I might have bought crack at Colonel Sanders’. Satisfied that it would take at least half an hour to rearrange my belongings, Burly started checking the pockets I hadn’t emptied. After wiggling his fingers in both of my back pockets, he motioned toward my jacket, apparently aware that he could make a bigger mess with that.

He pulled out old brochures, ticket stubs, used tissues (which seemed to interest him in particular). Both Burly and Scrawny, took a long, close look at a piece of half-heaten Lebkuchen that I’d put in my jacket pocket the day I discovered that I hate Lebkuchen (gingerbread that has been aged five years to perfection, or rock-hard flavourlessness).

Des is Nirnberga Lebkuchn. Wern’S bstimb net oizua intressont finda.
That’s Nürnberg Lebkuchen. I don’t think you’ll find it terribly interesting.

Do bin i ma no net sicha.
I don’t know about that,

replied Burly, and I began wondering if he was hungry.

“Feadig,” said Burly — we’re through —, and they left me to pick up the new two-foot high pile of crap across from me. For some reason or other, it didn’t occur to them that I might possibly, instead of the spacious, secure hiding places of my pockets, have stashed something of interest in, say, my large, locked suitcase or my heavy, bulging backpack.

Nah…

However, the first thing one notices upon arriving in Nuremberg during the Christkindlesmarkt is Glühwein (“glowing wine”). Glühwein is a sort of spiced wine, served hot in the winter. Indeed, Glühwein – like its fittingly named Swedish twin Glögg – is practically synonymous with winter in Germany. It has a sweet, yet slightly bitter taste that is vaguely reminiscent of fruit punch served hot, and its alcohol content is noticeable almost immediately. In fact, I generally got a fairly powerful contact buzz just walking through the Nuremberg city centre in winter.

Alas, hungry as I was, I couldn’t really linger. My next train – to a town I’d never heard of called Hof – was set to leave soon, and I had no idea how long it would take to go downstairs from this platform and up the stairs of the platform of the Nuremberg-Hof train with my mountain of luggage. Given my extremely tight connections and the fact that I was now moving into completely unfamiliar territory, I was constantly terrified that I might miss my train, or, even worse, miss my stop and end up stranded in the middle of nowhere.

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En diciembre de 1996 me encontré en la sala principal de la Hauptbahnhof (estación central) de Munich. Apenas había regresado del poblachón de Fieberbrunn, en el centro de la porción austríaca de los Alpes, donde había pasado la Navidad con unos amigos.

Fue una visita bastante informativa. Además de participar en un buen curso práctico en materia de parrandas, aprendí que aún había gente que decoraba sus árboles de Navidad con velas de verdad, y – como me lo recordaba sin cesar el dolor de mi pierna izquierda – que el significado de “trineo” varía según quien lo dice.

Este descubrimiento concreto lo hice un día en las primeras horas de la tarde, cuando mi amigo Paul en cuya casa pasaba la Navidad, anunció que la nieve era tan bonita que deberíamos aprovechar la oportunidad para “ir en trineo”.

Como la mayor parte de la gente del Medio Oeste de los EE.UU., “ir en trineo” para mí significaba subir un cerro levemente inclinado y bajar a toda velocidad en un artilugio que por su aspecto, parecía ser propulsado a chorro, o por lo menos tener un asiento proyectable.  Con esta imagen en la mente salí con Paul, mi otro amigo Rudi y uno de los amigos de los dos. Llevaba puesta ropa para la nieve que me había prestado Paul, que constaba de algo que parecía un traje de nieve descomunal de color naranja carcelero y un par de botas que su hermano guardaba de su año en el Ejército. Resulta que su hermano tenía pies pero que muy pequeños.

Así que paseamos por el pueblo rumbo a las montañas. En retrospectiva puede decirse que éste es el momento en que debía habérseme occurrido que Paul y los otros tenían una idea bien diferente de lo que es “ir en trineo”. Pero me fijaba demasiado en el dolor de mis pies comprimidos como para pensar mucho en eso.

El cerro que escogimos no era cerro, sino montaña, ni era “levemente”, sino más bien brutalmente inclinado. Subíamos trabajosamente durante por lo menos una hora; yo tuve que descansarme unas cinco veces para evitar un colapso cardíaco, cosa que a mis compañeros les dio harta risa.

Ya estaba agobiada cuando llegamos a una altitud que estimaron satisfactoria. Sólo ahora se me ocurrieron varios detalles bastante importantes: Primero, que estábamos tan arriba, y el sendero tan serpenteante que no alcanzaba a ver nuestro punto de partida. Segundo, que el sendero sólo medía un metro y medio de ancho. Tercero, que los trineos tenían el aspecto más bien de algo que se vería en un cuadro folklórico que algo que utilizaría una persona que aún guardaba un poco de cordura residual.  Finalmente me di cuenta de que el sendero tenía por un lado un muro de piedra empinado y por otro, una caída de unos diez metros.

– ¡Echámonos una carrera!, propuso Rudi, dándole un buen pulido a la experiencia.

–¡Dos en cada trineo!

Esta idea le pareció estupenda a todo el mundo.

Paul y su amigo se montaron en uno de los trineos, mientras yo me encontraba agarrada al otro, que compartía con Rudi, con toda la fuerza que me quedaba. Al partir, Rudi decidió pronunciar la frase menos tranquilizadora de toda la histora humana:

–No te preocupís, tenme confianza nomás.

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Im Dezember 1996 stand ich in der Haupthalle des Münchner Hauptbahnhofs. Ich war gerade erst von Fieberbrunn, einem kleinen Dorf mitten im österreichischen Alpenanteil, zurückgekommen, wo ich mit einigen Freunden Weihnachten gefeiert hatte.

Es war ein sehr lehrreicher Besuch. Dort nahm ich an wichtigen praktischen Lehrveranstaltungen in Sachen Alkoholkonsum teil, und erfuhr, daß es noch Menschen gibt, die ihre Christbäume mit echten Kerzen schmücken, sowie – wie die Schmerzen in meinem linken Bein immerzu in Erinnerung riefen – daß sich die Definition vom Rodeln von Person zu Person unterscheidet.

(more…)

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Upon leaving the information desk, I decided to have a look at the itinerary and see what the source of the woman’s mirth was.

München Hbf                             15:04    Sat
Nürnberg Hbf                            16:48
Nürnberg Hbf                            17:39
Hof Hbf                                         19:20
Hof Hbf                                         19:22
Plauen (Vogtland) ob Bf        21:00
Plauen (Vogtl) ob Bf               21:46
Lichtentanne (Sachs)            22:31
Lichtentanne(Sachs)             23:00
Leipzig Hbf                                0:00    Sun
Leipzig Hbf                                04:30
Dessau Hbf                                05:27
Dessau Hbf                                07:11
Berlin-Charlottenburg         08:57

There wasn’t a single high-speed ICE train on the list. I later learned that this was because the 35 Mark Ticket only applied to Regionalbahn short-distance commuter trains. These, as I already knew from much experience, made up for what they lacked in speed with their impressive discomfort. I quickly calculated in my head, and found that I was looking at an eighteen-hour trip, on top of the three hours I spent getting from Fieberbrunn to Munich. In other words, by the time I got to Berlin, I would have been underway for about twenty-one hours without a chance to sleep. And that wasn’t even counting the time it would take to get from the Charlottenburg station to Marek’s place.

I would have to change trains six times: once in Nuremberg, once in Hof, once in Plauen, once in Lichtentanne, once in Leipzig, and once in Dessau. In Hof, I would have only two minutes to make my connection. In Leipzig, on the other hand, I would have fully four and a half hours to kill in the middle of the night.

My two wheel-less suitcases, vintage 1972, began to feel just a little heavier.

This was not what I had bargained for. Instead of a fast, direct, comfortable train that would get me to Berlin in time for dinner, I was going to be plodding along in a commuter train with crap vinyl seats, and hanging around in the train stations of towns I’d never heard of, and going almost a full day without sleep or a chance to eat anything.

I had an hour and a half to think it over, so I stored my copious luggage in a locker and took the tube down to Sendlinger Tor to see about lunch.

Essentially, I had two options. I could either spend the next eighteen hours in various trains to get to Berlin, or I could take the next train back to Erlangen, a small city just north of Nuremberg where I was living with a temporary host family, the Hoffmanns.

Marek would certainly understand if I decided to give it a miss, given the insane itinerary I’d have to follow to get there.  However, the thought of returning to Erlangen, while it did have the benefit of being only a three-hour journey, did not particularly appeal to me.

Before I had left Erlangen, I had run into some difficulties with my student exchange organisation. It all started when my host family, the Hinrichs (of Herzogenaurach in the outskirts of Erlangen), and I decided that it might be a good idea to look for a new host family for me. Neither of us felt that the matter was particularly urgent; it just wasn’t a very good match. We informed the local chapter of the organisation of this, and they said that they would start looking for a new family.

A few days later, I received a call from a guy called Rainer, who worked with the local chapter. He had found a potential host family for me, and wanted to meet so we could discuss it. I pointed out that I would be leaving for Munich in two days to see a concert by Die Toten Hosen for which I’d had tickets for several months, and then to visit my friends in Austria for Christmas. Could I come to Nuremberg around eight tomorrow evening? I could (I went there as much as possible anyway, since there wasn’t much to do in Herzogenaurach). We agreed to meet in front of the large television screen in the main hall, and ended the conversation.

The next evening, I arrived in Nuremberg an hour early, had dinner, and positioned myself under the big TV screen in the main hall half an hour before I was supposed to be meeting with Rainer. I stood there, scrutinising the crowd for signs of someone who might be looking for me, for two hours, but there was no sign of him. After finally giving up, I took the next train back.

When I arrived at my host family’s house in Herzogenaurach, my host father informed me that there was a message for me. Rainer had rung, asking where I was. Since the message said it was urgent, I rang him straightaway to let him know that I had been precisely where he would have been, had he decided to show up for our meeting, though I put it rather more nicely than that.

“And you’re leaving tomorrow, right?” he asked, sounding like he’d been fast asleep.

“That’s right.”

“Then I guess we’ll meet after you get back.”

“Definitely.”

With the matter thus resolved, I went off to bed.

Early the next morning, my host mother woke me up to tell me there was a call for me. I took the phone.

“This is Christina Vuskovic,” she informed me matter-of-factly, “I just wanted to let you know that you won’t be able to go to Munich.”

“What? What do you mean?” I mumbled, still barely conscious, “That trip was approved ages ago!”

“It’s a pity you couldn’t make it to the meeting with Rainer last night.”

It’s times like these that I begin to believe in the possibility of parallel universes.

“Excuse me? I was there! It was Rainer who didn’t show up.”

“Rainer says otherwise. Anyway, you’ll need to pack your things. You’re moving in with the Hoffmanns.”

Click.

It is a testament to my self-control that the phone remained intact when I handed it back to my host mother. I couldn’t decide what part of the thirty-second exchange was more surreal – being scolded by someone I’d never met for not showing up to a meeting that I was the only one to show up to, or being told, without any advance warning, that I was going to have to leave the house I’d been living in for months.

Not that I really minded moving in with the Hoffmanns. We actually got on quite well. I had helped their younger daughter, Anna, proofread the Spanish in her senior project. In a lot of ways, my relationship with them was much better than with my current host family. Our dispositions were simply a better match.

After saying my good-byes and getting settled in at the Hoffmann house, the mother of the family, Beate Hoffmann, told me I’d have to get up a bit early the next morning. Christina Vuskovic was coming over to have a talk with me. The combination of getting up early on a weekend and meeting with someone whom I sincerely wished only the best case of projectile dysentery sounded just lovely.

The next morning, I woke up bright, early, and unenthusiastic, took a shower, and poured myself a cup of coffee. I certainly wasn’t going to have another conversation with Christina Vuskovic in a semi-conscious state.

I grabbed a book and took a seat in the living room. I had almost finished the book when Christina strolled in, two hours late.

Apparently having decided to make up for her delay by skipping apologies, explanations and other irrelevancies, she opened the dialogue with a reprise of her début hit:

“It’s really a shame you couldn’t make it to the meeting last night.”

The conversation went downhill from there. For an hour and a half, I tried to make it clear that I, in fact, had made it to the meeting, had come early, and waited for hours for Rainer to show up, and she dismissed me with contempt. By the end of the conversation, she had informed me that I was irresponsible, unreliable, inconsiderate, and generally a bad person.

Nor was she particularly receptive to the irony of being called inconsiderate by someone who came to a meeting she demanded two hours late without even a phone call.

It was raining!”, she shouted, full of righteous indignation.

After a bit more abuse, Christina had clearly had her fill, and took her leave. Later, she rang to say that I would still be able to make the rest of my trip – she had insisted in our conversation that it was absolutely impossible – if I signed a release saying that I was leaving the organisation.

As I mulled this over in the station hall, I realised that my options boiled down to:

  • A.    Go back to Erlangen, where I was guaranteed another helping of Christina’s fuckwittage, or
  • B.    Take a long, exhausting trip through unfamiliar territory with enough luggage to break the back of a water buffalo.

Put that way, it wasn’t such a hard decision after all.

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Thus reassured, I tensed up every muscle in my body and prepared for the worst. However, the snow was actually pretty soft, and, while we were moving at a good clip, the speed didn’t feel unmanageable. In fact, it was actually pretty nice.

Just as I was calming down and beginning to feel much better, or at least somewhat less abjectly terrified, about the whole enterprise, the trail narrowed a bit, and we moved onto well-packed snow.

We began to pick up speed. My first thought, to the extent that I can recall exactly, was “Cool!”

As we continued accelerating, I vaguely noticed that we had taken on a subtle, but definite leftward course, towards the aforementioned thirty-foot drop-off. This was decidedly less cool.

“I say, we do seem to be moving awfully close to the wrong edge of the path,” I remarked, but it actually came out as something closer to:

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!”

The laws of physics promptly confirmed this judgment by flipping us, sled and all, right off the edge of the path, and about thirty feet down into a mercifully soft snowbank.

I was the first to land. Soon after, a surprised Rudi took his place right on my chest. Our sled then landed on his back. Rudi rolled off of me, and I began to sit up. My chest had been so compressed by the impact that I couldn’t breathe at all for at least a minute after the impact.

When I was finally able to inhale at least a little, my first official act was to scream so loud and long that people in Munich briefly looked up from their lunch.

Slowly, I got to my feet and began feeling around to see if anything was broken. While my left leg was pretty badly bruised from the impact, and my chest cavity had definitely seemed better days, I was, amazingly, unharmed.

At that moment, Paul and his friend Markus arrived on their sled.

“What happened?” Paul asked, as he made his way down to our snowbank.

“We’re looking for a site to open up a bed and breakfast,” I replied.

“Are you OK?”

“Not particularly”, I said as Rudi, ever the optimist, confirmed that he was doing fine.

“Want to have another go?” asked Paul.

“Fuck that”, I replied, and limped back to Paul’s house, getting lose two or three times in the process.

I had largely recovered from this adventure as I stood, a week later, in the Hauptbahnhof in Munich and contemplated what to do next.

I had received an invitation from my friend Marek to spend a week with him in Berlin, and celebrate Silvester, as New Year’s Eve is called, with his family and friends. When I explained that I wasn’t sure if I could afford the tickets for such a trip, Marek told me about the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket (Nice Weekend Ticket, aka 35 Mark Ticket), which, for 35 marks (about US$ 17.50), would allow the bearer unlimited travel within Germany for the entire weekend, starting Friday and ending Sunday night.

The minute I heard of this ticket, visions started appearing in my head of blazing along the railways in Germany’s ICE (Intercity Express) trains, known for their extreme comfort, speed, and vaguely Star Trek-esque interior decorating. This sounded delightful, and I quickly said he could count on me.

Once in Munich, I stopped by one of the ticket vending machines to buy this wonder of modern rail travel. I put in my 35 marks, and pocketed the ticket. I then proceeded to the information desk, where I waited in line for about 15 minutes before getting to speak to a rather sour-looking middle-aged woman.

Servus, könnten Sie mir bitte die bestmöglichen Reiseverbindungen nach Berlin mit einem 35-Mark-Ticket ausdrucken?“ (“Hello, could you please print me out the best connections to Berlin using a 35 Mark Ticket?”)

At this, she perked up a bit: “Mit einem 35-Mark-Ticket nach Berlin wollen Sie?” (“You want to go to Berlin using a 35 Mark Ticket?”)

“Ja.”

At this, she laughed long and hard. I had, it seemed, immeasurably brightened her workday.

After she finished laughing, she entered a few things into her computer, walked over to the printer, and handed me a slip of paper with my connections.

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In December 1996, I found myself standing in the main hall of Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (central train station). I had just returned from spending Christmas with friends in the village of Fieberbrunn, in the middle of Austria’s share of the Alps.

It had been a most instructive visit. Apart from doing some very important formative drinking, I learned that there are still people who decorate their Christmas trees with actual candles, and – as the ache in my left leg constantly reminded me – that “sledding” means different things to different people.

This particular discovery I made one early afternoon, when my friend Paul, with whom I had been staying, announced that there was such lovely snow that we should really take advantage of it and go “sledding”.

Like most people from the Midwestern US, sledding, to me, meant going a few hundred yards up a gently sloping hill, and then speeding down it in a contraption that looks like it might have jet propulsion or, at a minimum, an ejector seat. With this image firmly in mind, I set off with Paul, my other friend Rudi, and one of their friends, wearing some snow gear that Paul had lent me, which consisted of what looked like an oversized snowsuit in prison orange and a pair of his brother’s boots from his year in the army. His brother, as it turned out, had very small feet.

And so we proceeded through the village in the direction of the mountains. In retrospect, this is when I should have begun to suspect that Paul and company might have a rather different image in mind. However, I was too concentrated on the pain in my compressed feet to think much about that.

The hill we ultimately chose was not so much “gently sloping” as brutally inclined. We slogged up for what felt like at least an hour, during which time I had to take five breaks to avoid collapsing, which my companions found quite entertaining.

By the time we had reached an altitude they deemed satisfactory, I was already exhausted. Only now did I notice a few rather important details: First, that we were so high up, and the path was so winding, that I couldn’t see where we’d started. Second, that the path was only about two feet wide. Third, that the sleds looked more like something Norman Rockwell would paint a person sledding in than something that sane people would actually sled in. Lastly, I became aware that the path had a steep rock wall on one side and a thirty-foot drop on the other.

“Let’s race!”, Rudi proposed, nicely rounding out the experience, “Two to a sled!”

All agreed that this was an excellent idea.

Paul and his friend took the one sled, while I found myself clinging for dear life onto a sled I shared with Rudi. As we got underway, Rudi decided to utter the least reassuring words in any language:

“Don’t worry, just trust me.”

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