Bee Eaters

Gazing in one direction the prominent hills of the Black-forest take up a commanding scene, but if I cast my eyes westward, toward France, the Kaisersthul is the one clear hill on the horizon before the Rhine.  The Kaisersthul, or ‘Emperors chair’, is a little over 500 metres at the summit and is an old volcano.  It is known worldwide for the wines that come from its terraced slopes, and for some interesting flora and fauna.

In what is a micro-climate of Mediterranean temperatures it is possible to find sand lizards, praying mantis, and breeding colonies of the European Bee Eater.  Having journeyed with a friend from church I was surprised that we were able to spot the Bee Eaters so quickly.  Driving up a narrow road with the only traffic being narrow bodied farm tractors that are built to pass between the row upon row of grape vines, and the occasional cyclist, we stopped the car and sat on a wooden bench and within moments graceful birds glided above and below our vantage point.

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It was the warmest day of the year, with the temperature hovering around 30 C and the air heavily scented with the perfume of flowering trees.  All very exciting stuff for those who like to birdwatch.  Meanwhile in Scotland, one of my favourite birds species from Canada, the Red-winged Blackbird, was grabbing the attention of those on the hunt for rare birds.  After my own outing, I heard reports of birdwatcher flocking to a remote part of Scotland to see the first time visitor of a female Red-winged Blackbird.

I was glad that my trip was not so frantic, a lot warmer, and spent in good company.  To end the birdwatching trip and toast my first sighting of a Bee Eater at the Kaiserstuhl – like most outdoor hikes in Germany – we were able to find a nice local restaurant where we could put down the binoculars and lift another set of glasses to end our day.

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Everybody looks like George Clooney

After a lovely Easter Vigil with the Old Catholic congregation in Freiburg, then an early sunrise service on the hills overlooking the city, and topped off with five baptisms on Easter morning – I was ready for a holiday.

A small camping site on the end of Lake Como (the opposite end to Clooney’s villa) was our home base for a few days of relaxation and exploring.  In a relatively short time we had driven through Switzerland and entered Italy via the Gotthard tunnel.  You know you’ve arrived in Italy as all of a sudden every driver behind you feels like they are in the trunk of your car and all the men look like George Clooney.

With some unseasonably cool weather pouring south over the alps, we had no use for our swimwear that we brought with us having expected warm wind from the Sahara to be blowing its way north.  No matter.  We found lots to do and explore.  An old church pilgrimage site over looking the lake, lakeside villages with loads of history, and fantastic coffee about every 100 metres.  Italy has to be the place for breaking ones coffee fast over Lent.

Fully caffeinated and feeling a little more Italian, we drove to Milan for a day to see the some sights, but mostly we watched people strolling around the boulevards looking like they had just walked out of a fashion magazine.

Eventually it was time to return home to Germany.  Knowing that the very lengthy tunnel passage through the Alps would, on a Saturday, be jam pack with traffic we opted for the scenic over the alps route.  Unfortunately, the sign to indicate that the mountain pass we had chosen was closed was at the very bottom of the road (which we didn’t see) and the next notice sign was at the top.  It was, despite the frustration, an amazing drive which reminded me of so many car chase scenes in a James Bond film.  Hairpin turns, sheer drops, amazing snow capped peaks, and short one-way icicle filled tunnels made sure that you had both hands on the wheel.

Having to turn back and descend the mountain to find another available pass forced us to see more of the worlds famous skiing and alpine resorts. If anything, it was better than sitting in a two and a half hour traffic jam in the tunnel.  We stopped for a coffee and snack at a small mountain top restaurant to be reminded that we had left Italy, and were now in Switzerland as the espresso coffee shot up in price to 4 Euros!

The holiday ended with us picking up the dog from the kennel.  Sadly, the dog was not able to join us despite us finding a dog friendly campground.  All the required inoculations for the dog made it so that he was not allowed out of the country.  Or, as we were told by the veterinarian – you could likely take him out of Germany, but coming back (if you get caught) would be very costly with a forced 6 week quarantine period.  Even with the dog having his Euro dog passport (yes, there is such a thing!) the new rules require a 3 week waiting period after a rabies booster injection.

All in all, we returned from the holiday relaxed and refreshed.

Held up at Gunpoint

The other day as I got of the train nearby our home, hands in my pockets, I rounded the corner and walked right into a standoff.

Two boys, around 7 years old, approached with bandana’s covering their mouths, and hands at their sides.  They were too fast for me, and drew their guns out of their holsters, and blasted me.  The smell of gunpowder was on the air as the midday sun shone down on all of us.

I had no chance.  The children during the Fasnet celebrations had got me.  The boys laughed and laughed, as their cap guns clacked away.  No horses to ride off on, but I was left alone and I soon heard in the distance the next unsuspecting victim being shot to smithereens.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a child’s toy cap gun in a store, but they flood the shelves at the department stores and village toy shops.  Costumes for young and old are for sale, and so begins the regional celebrations.  While Shrove Tuesday is a few days away still, the spirit of Mardi Gras is alive and well in some shape and form here in Freiburg.  Children take over their schools, groups of children raid the village and city halls.  The Roman Catholic priest wasn’t able to attend a recent meeting as he was detained by the children in his congregation as fun and havoc rules for a short time every year.

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Each village has a particular style of clothing, and costume.  Some are expensive carved wooden masks depicting witches, or furred animals. The suits are old pieces of stitched on cloth,  pottery shards, or tiles. The partying can shut down offices, trains and trams as parades, and mockery take hold.  The spirit of carnival lasts for about a week, and then there is another celebration in Basel, Switzerland with its own customs and traditions.  And then there is the Alemannisch Fastnacht which offers another set of customs.  Some photos of the costumes can be found at the Black Forest Tourism Office.

I couldn’t possibly go into details about the richness of the various traditions, as many of the villages, groups and people have their own stories to tell.  It is however, an exciting time, full of fun, tradition and celebration.  There’s always a surprise waiting around the corner.

Time, Distance, Speed

Don’t think that I’m going to start on a physics lesson.  The themes of time, distance and speed are things you begin to think about when you are passed on the Autobahn like you are standing still.

140 Km/hr is very slow for some.

While not all the roads are unrestricted in speed, there are plenty of places on the highway and smaller roads which have either no speed limit, or a very high limit (100km/hr on a winding single track road in the mountains).  It is not often that I drive our car as Anke uses it mostly to get to and from work, leaving me to negotiate trains and Straßenbahn.  However, when I do get behind the wheel, our old car does well at around 120-130 km/hr and I settle into a groove being able to pass the large LKW (Trucks) and the occasional car towing a trailer, or camper.

The other night, as I made my way home after an evening meeting, I merged onto the autobahn and an Audi driving behind me was quick to get into the left lane in order to pass me as I sped along at 120 km/hr.  The roar of a diesel engine beside me was followed by two things.  First, a streak of black and chrome as the Audi driver passed me like I was standing still.  The second thing to happen was the flash of headlights from far behind me, as another car approached and signalled to the Audi that he was going far too slow and should move over into the slower right-hand lane.

Less than two seconds lapsed and some polished car of some make (it was a station wagon!) zoomed by me and eventually the first car, the Audi, now far ahead of me in the right lane.  My own old Volkswagen heaved to the side as the very fast car sucked us into its wake and the red rear lights of the speeding bullet of a car blurred like a vapour trail left by a jet on a cloudless sky.

All of this is a fairly normal occurrence, but one that makes me wonder how my own driving skills have changed, and what I will be like when we return to Canada for a holiday.  Perhaps I should budget in some extra money to pay for speeding tickets.

Speed is of course distance over time.  Two other aspects of life in Germany is the distortion of distance and time.  In Canada we celebrate 100 year anniversaries, and designate buildings even 75 years old as ‘heritage sites’.  Albeit, Canada is perceived as a young nation, so my sense of time fails to compare with the much longer notion of time in Germany and that of Europe in general.  My wife use to tease and say that the house she grew up in is older than my country.  Walking around any part of Germany I find buildings, houses, chapels, barns, fountains, and even cafés and breweries that were built in the 15th or 16th century.  These are the ‘young’ places, as there are plenty of other sites that are far older.

Time is also generational, having family members living and dying in the same house, the same family working the same land, the same last names selling the same product….for generations.  Large stone crosses that dot the landscape are maintained and preserved by family members of the landowners that many years ago decided to mark the edge of their field, or property.  With this long sense of time, it is no wonder that the re-ordering of the village centre takes so long, even if it looks like a better plan and layout.

With the lengthening of time, comes the lengthening of distance.  While a hundred years in Canada is considered heritage, a hundred kilometres is considered the other side of the planet.  When we signed up for car insurance for having a car in Germany, the agent on the phone understood that we had just moved and so having no driving record in Germany wanted to get an understanding of our driving habits.  Our answer to the question, “How many kilometres were on your previous car?” was met with shock thinking that our car must surely be 50 years old and had two new engines.  The trembling voice of the insurance agent shook all the more when we said our car was only 5 years old.  We had to explain living in Canada requires an awful lot of driving as the distances are much longer.  Considering that the land area of Germany would fit about two times into the province of British Columbia we realize that the sense of distance is also very different.  A lot of people say that France, or Switzerland are just too far away! Being that it took more time to travel to my parents house in Vancouver than it did to nip across to France for a baguette, or a meeting in Switzerland it takes time to assure people that perspectives are different.

I shake my head in astonishment at 100 years, while others shake their heads at 100 kilometres, but fortunately we are able to merge onto the same highway.

Announcements

Sunday will be the public reading in the parishes that I, and my family are moving parishes.  There is of course a catch that will throw some people off and that is that we are moving to Germany and not around the corner to a neighbouring parish.  In this day and age, the global community seems far more close, so in some respects (perhaps for my predecessor) it will feel like I never left.  After a lot of prayer, and randomly surfing the web, I came across a wonderful parish and after a short talk with family I applied.  In what feels like a whirlwind of extremes and a state of God’s graciousness permeating each decision, we will soon be moving to Germany.