There and back again

Not all travel is easy. We often forget that while we sit so comfortably in a cushioned seat that we are speeding through countryside at nearly 300 km/hr, or traveling at even higher speeds, and loftier heights. The past few days has brought with it much travel.

Having returned from the UK after finishing the residential session for becoming a diocesan Spiritual Director, I now sit at home, phone in hand, sending short messages to my daughter who is, at this moment, stuck with her friends returning from their Harry Potter excursion in London. A cancelled train in Brussels, and now a bus ride to Germany to be put up in a hotel. They are all in good hands, and we will see each other tomorrow.

My own travels to and from the UK were also challenging. High winds were such that flights were cancelled out of Basel, and my own airplane remained on the runway for nearly an hour, but if I closed my eyes it felt as if we were high up in the air. The jet was buffeted by strong gusts of wind that made the wings tip back and forth. Getting to the UK was a bit delayed, but the return trip was also interesting.

Leaving the retreat centre, a number of our group caught a taxi to the main station where I am sure some clown music played faintly in the background and we anxiously played a game of Tetris with luggage and people in amongst folded seats and a rather small mini van having to leave one person behind for another cab. Most of us hopped onto the coach upon our arrival at the train station, which then took us to the various airport terminals. Exceptionally polite bus drivers carefully examined each ticket in turn, and personally loaded the baggage which left me feeling rather stunned as de rigour of Flixbus travel in Germany is elbows out whilst throwing your baggage onto the bus in amongst other passengers removing luggage. As a sure sign of belief, we all hope that in the confusion my nondescript black suitcase which is of the identical dimensions of every other traveller on a discount flight will, by some miracle, arrive at our destination, and that I will find all the same clothes to wear as I had placed in the bag to begin with. In the short space of time it took me to travel from the bus to the main door of the Heathrow departure terminal – about 100 metres – half a wheel fell off my luggage and just as the large glass sliding door opened a pigeon placed a well aimed splat of white guano to go with my emerald green puffy jacket. I tried to think of it all as a sign of good luck; or, if this is happening now, surely the wheels and wings of the airplane will stay on.

In the lift to find the baggage drop I examined myself in the mirrored wall of the elevator trying to clean myself off. At least it gave the other travellers something to look at other than just the numbers flashing above the door as we rose to the fifth floor. Thinking I was finally finished wiping myself clean of the signature bird poop I felt yet another drop of something on my head. How is it even possible that an interior elevator leaks? Why is it that I have to stand under the place of the drip?

The checked in baggage has great advantages being almost solely automated. There are no longer snaking lines of tired travellers navigating labaryths made from movable pillars with seatbelt railings; instead, there is a series of touch screens which ask you for more, and more, and more information until finally the system can be sure that it has no idea who you are and you must look for an actual person to help explain to you that the documentation would have already been emailed to you as an e-ticket. This is when I realize that in spite of all this, my phone has chosen this moment to give up and need recharging. This is exactly why I like to leave a little time before boarding; to give the airplane a fighting chance of leaving with out me. That, and the feeling of Murphy’s Law which works its way to the front of my thoughts.

I then found myself with bag on conveyor belt standing next to another fellow, also with bag on a conveyor belt. We looked at each other an wondered if that was it. “Is that as far as it goes? Just sits there?” We tried wheels first. Wheels last. We tried throwing my bag a little further along to the other set of conveyor belts which joined the nearest set. Nope. We banged the conveyor like one does with the Deutsche Bahn luggage assist that runs beside concrete steps of the German train stations. Nope, still nothing. We need to look for an actual person to help us. Very soon a helpful employee wandered by to toss, not our luggage, but a rhetorical question, “Why does someone keep turning on the defective station after I’ve turned it off!” Why indeed.

Card scanned. Code words entered. Hidden switches switched. Laser scanners activated. Bags handed over to be sorted out by the staff person, conveyers whizzing and whirring, only to find that I would be paying 178 Pounds for over-weight luggage. What!!!

My shoulder bag had been tagged as the other passengers, whilst I was now left ‘holding the bag’ of the other fellow. It was quickly discovered that of the two broken conveyor belts to choose from, both of us passengers shared the same first name which led to some confusion as to who’s bag was scanned. With a rubber-like arm, the staff member again flipped a hidden switch, and both sets of bags were once again regurgitated from the belly of the mechanical beast, no longer having our personal items shipped to Tarshish and Nineveh respectively.

Life is exciting enough without all the travel stress. Having landed safely – now more than a week ago – as like the false starts, the groundings, the tiny taxis and well-aimed poop, the internet broke and I lost this story until I could finally put the finishing touches on it just now.

I think I am about full up with my Lenten penitence and will be glad to remain in one place for a while.

Advertisements

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.

MeropsApiasterGould

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.

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.

4 Countries & 1/2 a Tank of Fuel

A friend posted a brief response to a remark I had made online to the subject of my title: B-L-F-G (Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Germany).  He guessed correctly, and the time away has given me some food for thought as well as some amazing food for the stomach.

The smallness of Europe hit home as we sped down motorways and side roads leaving Brussels and 4 hours later arriving home in Freiburg, having crossed, or at least entered 4 countries in the process.  The mini-holiday is n0w over, but it has given me some time to reflect on some larger issues.

I took my camera with me on the trip and fortunately the Automatic features were acting up for some reason.  I say, fortunately because I was then forced to do everything manually like I use to do by default with my old Mamiya 35mm.  Having to relearn the ƒ-stops, and shutter speed settings was good medicine.  A parishioner regularly posts “today’s moment calm” which I enjoy seeing, both for the creativity and for the much needed pause in the day.  Equally important for my trip was to slow down and set the scene, wait for the right light, and adjust the settings on the camera for the perfect picture.  Of course not all the photos worked out well, and I am certainly glad that I was not limited to the 24 or so exposures that film would have offered.  Nonetheless, I have a few random photos that are from France that I want to speak about.

Boundaries: The first is the gate of the manor house in which we were able to stay amongst extended family members.  This old house has rooms for the servants, as well as stately rooms for the former residents, yet on the grounds, which were expansive indeed, is an old iron foundry which is unoccupied.  The manor is gated and on the outskirts of the small French village surrounded only by fields of wheat, or pastures of cows.  In this area, like many other areas in Europe, the harvest happens all day and night.  The heavy machinery needed to harvest the grain is too expensive for each farmer to own, so only one or two large combines and tractors work round the clock.  The grain in the picture at the front gate of the manor was gone overnight leaving stubble behind.  I took the photo as it symbolized boundaries.  The boundaries of farm and manor, industry and agriculture.  The stone pillars and the far horizon set the tone for entry into rest and work.

Something that is important to hold onto is the boundaries between rest and work.

Rest:  Another photo is a close up of a large snail shell in amongst the green Hosta plants.  The snail is right outside the large wooden doors at the front of the house.  The snails are much larger than what I would have experienced on the West Coast of Canada, and so are the Hostas as those would often be eaten by the deer moments after planting, or emerging from the ground.  The snail was tucked up quietly in its own shell waiting for some cooler temperatures, but it did make me ponder the houses we live in – the largess of a manor house now used for foreign visitors during the summer months, and the smallness of the snails home which travels with and is its source of protection.  It is important to curl away in a sleep mood and take time to rest no matter how large or small your house.

Growth and Harvest:  In and around the area are several hiking trails, one of which is symbolized with a yellow and green stripe painted onto poles and fence posts.  I thought the one captured on camera had all the tones of the surrounding area.  One side of the road was green with grass and weeds; the other was newly harvested grain that has dried for weeks in the field. On all our journeys there are times of green growth often right next to golden harvest.  The landscape reflected these colours and this mood.  In all of life there is time to plant, and time to harvest and sometimes we are fortunate to see it happen before our eyes.

Risk:  One of the final photos of the day was at a small stream.  The track took me though hot fields and dry roadways.  A small bench was situated next to the stream that was full of trout and looked like an ideal place to swim for all the children staying at the manor house.  The green trees brought shade and the water was rippled in some places only by small water insects gliding over the surface.  The growl of an engine steadily grew as I soon saw a car approaching.  Even on some of the smaller roads the speed limit can be significant (90-100 km/hr) and I watched in astonishment as a small car barely slowed to drive through the water.  I was filled with envy when I saw this happen as I’ve always wanted to drive through water like that, having only done it once after convincing my Dad to drive his truck through a flooded roadway.

This picture made me think about risk.  We would have risked swimming here, and I could have risked taking our own car through the water.  The element of risk is sometimes important to shock our systems into life.  Just like risking our vulnerability in opening up to people about our feelings, or risking scathing comments for some mediocre photographs.

Vacations, no matter how small, can teach us something.  A reminder to risk.  To look for signs of growth, and places to harvest. To take the time to be small and rest.  To be aware of the boundaries of work and play, heaven and earth.