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Pots and Pans
January 26, 2003
(Written February 16)
Dear Family and Friends,
By the time we'd worked a couple weeks of the new year, we needed a weekend break. Long workweeks and part-time student life had us frazzled. So, what to do and where to go? Friends had all sorts of suggestions. Go to France for good food. Go to Southern Germany or even Switzerland for Winter Wonderland. Go to Brussels for charm and sophistication. Go to nearby Cologne for history and a most-famous cathedral. There was no shortage of weekendable destinations.
So we chose pots. (Not "pot", that's Denmark - a bit too far and not our taste.) Not just any pots but Le Creuset, enameled-iron pots. These are the top-of-the-line cookware for certain serious dishes and the factory in Fresnoy le Grand France is a mere six hours drive from Frankfurt. What, YOU wouldn't drive six hours (each way) to get a good deal on cookware? Well, to each his own. Besides, we've seen all the castles, churches and squares we need for awhile.
Friday after work, we hit the German autobahns to make it halfway. Our goal was Aachen in the far western corner of Germany, a stone's throw from Belgium and the Netherlands. Aachen is also striking distance to or from France, as the Old Europeans repeatedly demonstrated over the centuries.
The autobahn part of travel here is fine. Sometimes the roads are crowded, such as on Friday evenings, but generally things move right along. The driving problems all happen in the cities. German cities are all arranged in rings. As the towns would grow and get too crowded within the surrounding wall, that wall would be torn down. A new, longer wall would arise and the process would start over again. The circle of the old wall would become a road and then the pattern would again repeat.
Aachen has a number of ring roads and our small hotel was on one of them. Unfortunately, we were uncertain which ring and, by the time you've made a loop or two, it's impossible to tell which direction on which ring one is driving. And, if you and your copilot are hungry after three hours of driving, after a long workweek... well, that's how these European wars start I suppose.
Just in the nick of time, we spotted the place and were graced with a parking place right in front! The gods were with us. We unpacked and left for a walk and some sort of dinner. A couple blocks away, we saw a small food shop and decided to get ingredients for an evening picnic. The fruit looked good, the wine adequate and the cheese and snacks excellent. It turned out to be a shop that specialized in Iranian noshes. The owner was most friendly and, as it turned out, most welcoming to us Americans. He had left Iran 12 years earlier as a political refugee and ended up in Aachen when most of the rest of his family ended up in Los Angeles. He and his wife have made a new life in Germany, working 60 or 70 hours every week. We told him LA isn't so great. Just warmer than Aachen, not better.
Saturday morning, we enjoyed our hotel breakfast and then hit the road. In five minutes we were in Belgium. A few minutes after that and we were on Belgium freeways, as nice as our German autobahns but, compared to Germans the drivers were a bit slower. We decided to be German and drove at 130 to 160 kph (100 mph). In no time, we were in France and, after only a few kilometers on the French toll roads, we left high-speed roads to local village connectors. Still fun, but a lot slower.
Part of the fun was just trying to find out where we were. Marianne did a great job of navigating. I have to admit I gave up a number of times just when she would point out that we were on the right small road. When we finally made it to Fresnoy le Grande we had to struggle a bit to find our famous factory. When we found it, the guard said the shop was closed for lunch.
Oh yeah, this is France. Lunch is important. We asked for recommendations and were sent back to the village we'd passed through ten minutes earlier. There we asked again and followed directions to a bar with a small restaurant in a back room. The ambience was nothing special but the food was quite good. Yes, this is France and lunch, even in a bar back room, is important.
Properly fed, we went back to the Le Creuset shop. Inside we did indeed find bargains. (Unless we consider the cost of the trip itself!) We joined other shoppers and stocked up. I hope our children appreciate these pots and pans because they last forever and will become heirlooms. (Pots, not children.)
Our goal met, we retraced our steps back to Aachen. The weather had turned ... European - drizzle and chilly. But the drive was still pleasant enough, and our two border crossings zoomed past without so much as a wave. Back late at our hotel, we decided that we would quickly glance at Aachen Sunday morning and be on our way satisfied that we had done what we wanted - shopped for pots.
But Sunday morning had a surprise for us. We set out earlier for the old part of town. We paused and watched a parade that seemed to be marching for no other reason than to march. No sooner had we stopped and opened up our little tourist map than a grey-haired man asked if we needed any help. We said "maybe".
That was all it took for Georg to take over. For the next three hours we had one of the best city tours we've ever had. First, Aachen is a truly wonderful, historic town. It was Charlemagne's headquarters of the 8th century Holy Roman Empire. His memory reigns over Aachen even today. And Herr Grist knew it all.
He was a retired trade school teacher and he seemed to take joy in exercising his English as he did his exercise walk through Aachen. He said heart bypass surgery three years earlier had forced him to walk in town instead of in the forest for his exercise. We had a hard time keeping up to his pace as he took us to the each historic spot in town.
Georg described the world of Charlemagne by taking us to parts of old Aachen. He showed us the door with the emblems of the leaders who voted for the emperor. He took us around what is now the city council offices but had been the Emperor's castle and showed the statue of Charlemagne that had been a rallying point for over a thousand years.
Herr Grist told the tale of Charlemagne's coronation where the soon-to-be Emperor wanted 365 bishops in attendance but, when he had came up two short, he asked for divine intervention to bring back a couple bishops from the dead to fill out his-one-bishop-per-day plan. Tradition has it that two skeletons did indeed show up and "Skeleton Alley" is still decorated in their honor.
Inside the Treasury, we were treated to elaborate gold reliquaries holding various bits and pieces of old heroes and saints, including a golden head, reputedly holding the skull of Charlemagne himself. (P1260054). My favorite was a gold and glass chalice containing something said to be Jesus' belt. Honest, that's what the sign said.
Eventually, we had to bid Georg good-bye as he was expected at home. He was an hour or so late but we had the feeling this was not an unusual occurrence. Even as we left him in the town square, he was greeting old friends.
We did have to see the inside of the famous cathedral however. Inside we were surprised to see that the 1200-year-old church was as Moorish as any we had seen in Spain. One part looked much like mosques we had seen in Istanbul, especially the candelabra. Of course the stained-glass windows and Charlemagne's marble throne were pure Christian Emperor.
So, in the end, we filled the day with yet one more church, square and castle. That part of the day was a variation on earlier themes. George Grist's gracious sharing of his town was unique, however, and we will remember that long after we forget which church or castle went with which European square.
So, when someone asks if he can help, at least say "Maybe".
Take care and write if you can.
John and Marianne
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