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Report 1988: Yes, Zig Has Written About our Bavaria Trip!

By Zig and Georgia from Kentucky, Spring 2010

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Page 4 of 30: Monday May 17 - On the way to Maria Laach Abbey

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In the guesthouse

Up early to catch the train. Our hosts had returned from their weekend trip and prepared a very nice breakfast for us. The husband spoke only German and Italian. The wife spoke German, Italian, and a very rusty English. We managed to communicate picking and choosing our words carefully, pointing a lot and playing charades. It’s no wonder the Europeans love mime so much - it’s part of their everyday experience!

In the train station I tried again to speak some German to the young ticket agent, though his English was obviously better than my German. We were going to Maria Laach, a volcanic crater-lake about 35 miles south of Cologne, Germany. He was patient and very helpful in directing us to the right track and printing our schedule, even though we’d bought the tickets at the automat booth. In appreciation I tried to thank him using the peculiar Swiss-German pronunciation of the terminal “e” in “danke.” It should have been something like “dan-KAY” “or “dan-KEH” but came out “don-KEY.” He pfftted and sniggered and did just about everything except swallow his necktie trying to keep from laughing out loud. If he’d been drinking milk it would have squirted out his nose. I lit up like a tail-light. What a linguist I am.

Our high-speed train was delayed because the preceding train was 20 minutes late. That meant our train had to idle outside town somewhere — probably in a bar. Bars always have rails, you know. When the late train finally arrived our train glided in right behind it, but on a different track from the printed schedule. The conductors were all in a tizzy, blowing whistles, answering anxious questions from confused travelers, and waving flags at each other. Many of them had multiple piercings and many tattoos. In Germany I think train conductor is an entry-level position for recovering Goths.

Our train left the station only one minute late. They had made up 20 minutes in about five minutes of frantic flag waving! We would be following the Rhine to the small city of Andernach just south of Cologne. From there we would have to take a bus or taxi inland to the Abbey located on the shores of Maria Laach.

The ride was a pure joy. Perhaps not as perfectly smooth as the trains in Italy, but faster and more clean. We slipped along at 200 kilometers per hour, staring out our giant picture windows at the huge patchwork quilt of green wheat and bright yellow flax, grown to make bio-diesel. Along the Rhine itself, especially where the Mosel empties into it, there were also acres and acres of gray-green vineyards. There were very few bridges over the Rhine, but those few were stupendous. Magnificent soaring ribbons of steel girdling a river very much like the mighty Mississippi. It carried fleets of huge barges and container ships, and sported hundreds of little towns all along its banks - on both sides - picturesque and charming. Often the towns faced each other across the river, connected, I guess, by ferries. Our train, an inter-city, wasn’t going to stop anywhere. Someday, we’ll have to return and sample the local wines.

Andernach was a beautiful little city, catering to pedestrian traffic. We dragged our carry-ons all over the place looking for the church called the Mariendom. Why are beautiful old cathedrals located on tiny little cobblestone alleys? It did have some lovely stained glass windows. But, in case you were wondering: cobblestones are charming, but pulling rolling suitcases over them is a real pain in the patoot. The stained glass wasn’t that impressive. We snapped some quick pictures then clattered back over the same cobblestones to the train station to find a taxi.

Our driver was easily topping 100 kph on the winding road to the Laach. I guess if your taxicab is a brand new Mercedes Benz you simply have to floor it. The only thing that kept us from freaking out was the fact that 120 kph seemed pretty slow after riding a train that’s passing cars on the autobahn like they were stuck in second gear. But we were now blazing through forests of fir trees, lovely, dark, and deep, and only about three meters out the window. It was a little nerve wracking.

Father Timothy, our guest-master, met us at the door with wonderful English. He’s been to Gethsemani outside Bardstown Kentucky and asked to be remembered to Father Benedict. Our room was clean and bright with one (hard) sofa-sleeper and one slightly larger (very soft) “twin-sized” bed. Georgia volunteered for the sleeper. I figured she could help extricate me from the over-sized pillow each morning. We’d just settled in when vespers, evening prayer, began.

The abbey church is ancient beyond words and made from warm-colored sandstone. The setting sun produced a mysterious gloom, punctuated by the pastel colors of the stained glass, and perfect accompaniment for the melancholy chants. The pews were hand-carved, each with it’s own unique design and polished by centuries of rubbing.

Supper began at 6:30 and we were seated at a table with five other retreatants: there were three nuns, one young and two in their 60s, and a middle-aged lay couple from Dortmund. None spoke English though the young nun tried gamely. She got both tickled and frustrated at her inability to find the right words for the ideas in her head. I could tell that she really had things she wanted to tell us, but did not have the words. We all had to fall back on the familiar game of “pick various words from various languages and augment them with hand-signals and mime.” It worked. There seemed to be a lot of laughter at the table, though we certainly couldn’t mime anything of consequence. Father Timothy dropped by from time to time to see how we were getting along and would provide translation for critical pronouncements like “Dortmund has a wonderful football team!” and “Yes, we certainly have been having a cold and rainy May!” I can’t tell you the number of times on our trips when I’ve thought of Kierkegaard’s pronouncement that one knight of faith will always be able to recognize another knight of faith even though they won’t be able to communicate. I could see in the young nun a hunger to embrace the path she was on, but a fear that it might be a mistake. I wished I could talk with her, and I could tell that she did too, but she was in the right place. I often saw her in deep conversation with one of the other guest masters who was also a spiritual adviser. I hope in heaven to be fluent in all the languages of the world, but here below I can’t even seem to master one of them.

The meal itself was a variety of thinly sliced meats and cheeses and bread that was somehow both crunchy and tender as a baby’s smile. Why is it impossible to get good bread in our grocery stores? The coffee and tea was sublime. There was also the local alcoholic apple-wine and delicious water (with or without carbonation). Compline, the last “hour” of the day was at 7:45. I yawned all through the brief prayers, and we crashed immediately afterwards.

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