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May 31, 2003
Dear Friends and Families,
After Brugge, we were getting into this travel stuff. The problem is, we also have real obligations at home and besides, $5.25 per gallon makes one think twice about just jumping into the car. About mid-week, we remembered a solution: travel at home. Not just any "travel" but a weekend at a luxury hotel, near great shopping, and just a subway ride away.
A few weeks ago, we had passed through a particularly fancy Frankfurt hotel lobby in search of a nice Sunday brunch. The Steigenberger-Frankfurter Hof hotel, right in the center of Frankfurt, had the brunch we wanted but, at 30 euros per person, it was priced above our league. On our way out, we saw a small sign that advertised a weekend special: 130 euros for a Saturday night stay AND the Sunday brunch. What a deal! (Especially when I looked and saw that normal room rates are 300 euros per night and up - way up.) This was worth remembering.
The good news was that yes, indeed, we remembered. The bad news was we didn't remember all the terms and conditions, such as reserving at least three days ahead, Consequently, when we tried to book our in-town dream weekend, we were turned down.
What a bummer. We had already planned the visits to the in-hotel gym, pool and spa. We were imaging the stroll down Goethestrasse, Frankfurt's Fifth Avenue. And we were lingering over our leisurely Sunday Brunch, forgetting about working for a living.
Instead, we started the weekend like most of us do, with chores: cleaning, trips to the laundry, paying bills, etc. However, for our groceries, we did remember to try out a "farmer's market" called Kleinmarkthalle ("small market hall") in downtown Frankfurt. It was great, filled with colors and smells. We couldn't believe it had taken us a year to discover this "little" gem. We even ran into two friends, one a colleague from work and the other a student at our German school. Now, this was beginning to feel like a good home town Saturday, even if the upper class had refused us entry at the Steigenberger-Frankfurter Hof.
Now we were prepared to enjoy ourselves, but the weather was not cooperating. The skies were gray and just a bit drippy. But, we thought, we have another Frankfurt tourist must we've never done: The Applewine Express. This is a cute old tram that runs a weekend circuit around town. It rattles right past our door and stops not 100 yards away, yet, like the Kleinmarkthalle, we always left it for another day. Today was that day.
We went to the bus stop 15 minutes early and waited. A dozen other people looked like they were waiting too. Maybe our good, rainy-day idea wasn't so novel. When the Express finally showed up, it was packed and not a single person from our stop was allowed on. Bummer again. We'd already imagined laughing and joking with the other tourists, and drinking apple wine. To tell the truth, apple wine is pretty bad stuff, but it's the whole sampling-local-specialties thing that makes it seem worthwhile.
Now what? It looked like it was back to chores. The next thing on our list was "buy towel bar", followed by "install towel bar". Great, a house repair job, just what I didn't want. But we concluded the walk to the hardware store would be good and, who knows, something may show up along the way.
It did. We were passing a small driveway, a driveway we've passed scores of times, and we saw a chalkboard saying: "Weingut Kuchle, Badische Weine, Open". Badish wine? This was worth checking out. So we followed the driveway, behind some office and apartment buildings, and saw a warehouse door with another "open" sign. Inside the door, there were boxes, a forklift, and other warehouse things. I told Marianne this didn't look like a place we should visit. She persisted and looked around the corner, into an office of sorts, and saw a half-dozen people sitting at a table filled with glasses and bottles.
She asked "Are you open?" and they assured us they were and waved us to join the crowd. Except, no sooner did we go into the room, then all but one left. Was it something we said? Probably not, because they were all joking and laughing in German and we were still mumbling in English. We tried to get some information from the lady who remained but, while she was friendly enough, she admitted that she was just there to have a sip of wine. The real expert was outside loading up the purchases of the last customers.
Eventually, the proprietor came back and introduced himself as Herr Kuchle, said these were his wines that surrounded us, and asked would we like to sample? All this was in German mind you, but we just waded in with such complex sentences as "Yes, gladly". Thirty weeks of night school were finally paying off.
For the next hour, Herr Alfred Kuchle took us on a tour of his vineyard ("Weingut") in Baden ("Badische") in southern Germany. I believe the story was the following. His family had been in the wine business for generations, including selling to churches. I guess someone has to do it. While his father was still running the business, Herr Kuchle put in a 36-year bank career. My German is weak on important social distinctions and I could not tell if he had been a clerk at a little savings and loan or the managing director of a massive bank. I'd bet closer to the later.
In any event, on his father's passing five years ago, Alfred retired from banking and concentrated on the family wine business. Nowadays, he opens the small shop in our neighborhood for a few hours every Friday and Saturday. His price list has eight white wines, three reds and two "champagnes". His cupboard also had about an equal number of distilled wine and fruit products, from grappa to a very nice peach schnapps.
We worked our way through almost half of the wines, and a couple of the distilled products. Along the way, my German got better. Alfred could also shift into English if things got complicated, but he had the patience that I very much appreciate when I'm struggling with this new language.
Finally, he had to go to get on the road to the vineyard, where he was hosting a steak bar-b-que, so we made our purchase and got up to leave. Just then, the skies opened and we were faced with a rainy walk home laden with a couple boxes of wine. Herr Kuchle suggested we stop for a few minutes at a neighboring shop that specialized in olive oil. Why not?
So, we went next door, this time into an office/store combination and met Frau Finger. Actually, we'd met an hour earlier when she had been the last to leave from the Weingut Kuchle warehouse/store.
We continued our neighborhood gourmet tasting tour. Frau Finger poured samples of a half-dozen olive oils and cut up bread cubes. Then she guided us through the flavor nuances of olive oils from France, Spain, Italy and even Germany. It was a great tour but, if you think wines have subtle variations, differentiating olive oil is even harder. However, like wine, the first big jump is from bad to good and beyond that it's personal preference. After this Saturday tasting, we can't go back to grocery-store olive oil again. One difference between oil and wine is that good oil is not much more expensive than ordinary stuff and the best, while somewhat dearer, is not unreasonable. Besides, a bottle of oil lasts much longer than a bottle of wine!
At this point, we did have to move on. The magic 4pm all-Germany closing time had come and besides, all this sampling had made us hungry. We decided to just stop by the stand-up Italian place around the corner and get a little salad and calamari: an easy take-home dinner. When we speak German to native German-speakers, we expect a certain amount of confusion. There is even more opportunity for error when neither side is working in a native language. Marianne's snack order to the all-Italian restaurant crew turned into an unexpectedly huge feed for just the two of us. Oh well, the things we suffer in our search for cultural experience.
So we went home, overindulged, and reflected on how well we had planned the day. At least that's our story, and we're sticking to it.
Take care, stay in touch, and be flexible.
John and Marianne
ps: Some websites to explore:
http://www.stoeffche.de/express/home.htm applewine express
http://www.frankfurter-hof.steigenberger.de/servlet/PB/menu/1003760_l2/index.html Nice hotel I suppose, but a great website. 360 degree views of lots of rooms. Fun.
http://www.kleinmarkthalle.de/ This site is all German but fun practice if you want to be authentic.
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