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Travel Journal: Our Trip up the Rhine

I wrote a travel journal a few years ago while on a visit to Germany. Feeling wanderlust at the moment, I decided to share it with you. This was almost two years before Conjuring Zephyr was published. And while this was only a personal journal to remind me of what I'd seen in years to come, you can see a hint of my fiction writing style as I describe the Black Forest.

November 22, 2014, Evening

I am in my stateroom, room 115, on the Viking ship Bragi, named for the Norse god of poetry.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband, John, and I headed to O’Hare. The new system for checking in is very strange. You scan your passport, and print your baggage tags. But your boarding pass prints after you press finish with no warning, so the person behind you ends up with it! We went to the counter thinking it didn’t print and wound up with two. This is the first time I have done the TSA Precheck for DoD civilians. It was nice not having to take my bags apart or my shoes off. I have never gotten through security so quickly. We met up with my Aunt Debbie and her granddaughter/my cousin, Kaity, at our gate. We exchanged American dollars for Euros and Swiss Francs. While at the currency exchange, my baby brother, Jackson, was born in Ohio. We boarded our United Airlines flight two hours later.

The steward on our flight was very nice, but the stewardess was rude. After an in-flight meal of chicken and rice, I took some melatonin gummies to help me sleep. I awoke less than two hours later to severe turbulence. I didn’t sleep after that. I was using Sea Bands to help with motion sickness, but ended up having to take Dramamine. We landed safely in Amsterdam at 9 a.m. local time.

We were shuttled, by Viking, to our ship after gathering our bags, going through customs, and finding our guide. I was amazed that so many signs in the airport were in English. On the bus, the radio announcer’s Dutch was heavily marked with English words. Is it because Dutch has similar origins to English in Germanic dialects?

On the Bragi, we ate a light lunch and waited for our rooms to be made ready. We had to wait two hours. I was so tired. I crashed immediately. After waking, we went to the welcome presentation and dinner, which was delicious. The Coca-Cola they served was in glass bottles and was made with real sugar. We sat with a woman from Seattle, Sue, and she was a talker! She told us about the many places she has been. From Iceland to Jordan, she has been everywhere.

Unfortunately, we did not get to explore Amsterdam, having slept through the few hours we were docked there. If I hadn’t slept, the whole trip would have suffered. Tomorrow we will arrive in Kinderdijk, Netherlands and are going to tour a windmill.

November 23, 2014, Evening

Today, we visited Kinderdijk, Netherlands. It was colder than expected when we left the ship for the walking tour, but not as cold as it was at home. We learned all about the windmills in Kinderdijk and how they keep the town from flooding. We also saw a workshop and an engine room, and we got to go into the mill. It was pretty cozy and houses a miller with his or her family. We also saw the newer electrical pumps the town uses in modern day. The historical mill was built in the 1700s. It was interesting to learn that the blades can be turn 360 degrees to catch the wind from every direction. The tour guide, Ali, also told us how the millers used the position of the blades to send messages. The blades could say short rest, long rest, birth or marriage, death, or even “Nazis are coming” during WWII.

We returned to the ship for lunch, and afterward there was a presentation on the Netherlands. There was cheese tasting and afternoon tea. I learned that while Gouda is a Dutch cheese, the name is not proprietary, so it can be made anywhere. However, Edam can only be made in the Netherlands.

After tea, Aunt Debbie and Kaity played Trivial Pursuit against John and me. Aunt Debbie said we won, but I say the game isn’t finished. We got all the pieces and were in the center, but have yet to answer the final question correctly. They still have to get the pink piece. I hope to pick up the game later. Winning will be an epic highlight to the trip! No one ever beats Aunt Debbie!

We ate dinner with a couple from Florida. The husband, Fred, is a retired Army major general. We couldn’t believe we were eating with a general. The whole time the song from The Pirate Movie was playing in my head: “I am the very model of a modern major general…” They were both very nice. John was late for dinner, so Fred decided to play a joke on him. When John showed up, Fred got all excited and yelled, “Hey John, how have you been? So nice to see you again! It has been awhile.” John played along pretty well, but everyone knew he was confused.

November 24, 2014, Evening

Today, we visited Cologne or, as the Germans say, Köln (pronounce coal-nn). Our tour guide told us about how the city was a Roman settlement. The west side of the Rhine was Roman while the east was the Germanic tribes. He talked so much trash about the “barbaric, shady side” that it made me root for the east side.

The people of Cologne call the cathedral the Dom. Our guidebook says it is the “largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe.” The Dom was very large, much larger than Notre Dame in Paris, and very beautiful. I loved how the colored light danced on the pillars through the stained glass windows. After we visited the Dom, the tour guide showed us around the area. We (John, Kaity, and I) got bored with the commentary, so we split from the group when we saw a holiday market. Aunt Debbie was on a separate tour, one that didn’t walk so much since she has bad knees. I felt bad for leaving her, since it is her birthday, but she said it was alright.

We had sausage and fries at the market. I have no idea what kind of sausage it was, but it was good. On the way back to the bus pick-up point, I got a waffle dipped in chocolate, which we all shared. It was so delicious! Then we stopped at the ATM. I was worried it wouldn’t work because this was the first time I used my card overseas. I usually use travelers’ checks. I called my bank before I left home, so everything worked perfectly. I thought the ATM fee would be crazy, but it was only $2.50. We didn’t reach the bus in time, so we had to walk the twenty minutes to our dock.

Another entry for The Adventures of Being Blind: There was a glass cutter at the market. He was selling a hanging lamp, well more like a hanging candle holder. I didn’t realize there was a lit candle in the lamp and stuck my finger in it! I didn’t burn myself too badly, but I did get hot wax all over my fingertips. I was picking paraffin out from under my fingernails for the rest of the day!

When we got back to the ship, we attended a presentation on the European Union. It was very interesting. I learned a lot about what it means to be a part of the EU and how the U.S. couldn’t be, even if we wanted to, because one of the non-negotiable requirements is that the death penalty has to be illegal. After the presentation, John and I talked with the presenter about globalization and how the U.S. is facing many of the same issues/problems and challenges as Europe. Then we went to dinner.

Now, I am in the lounge with Kaity listening to two women from Cologne perform music. One is playing violin and the other classical guitar. They started with Mozart. I did not know you could adapt Mozart to the guitar. They are playing a Gypsy, also known as Roma, song called Two Guitars adapted for one guitar and one violin. I love it! They are so talented. They said the name of their duet is Duo Carpe Diem.

November 25, 2014, Night

Today, we saw a lot of castles. We arrived in Koblenz early and took a bus to Marksburg Castle. It was a really steep hike to the castle from where the bus dropped us off. The stairs and walkways in and around the castle were uneven and dangerous, so we all had to be very careful.

We saw cannons, kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, a chapel, a weaving room, an armory, and a forge. The only fact I was surprised by was that there was a privy right off the knights’ dining room. The guide said the knights would leave the door open while on the toilet so they could still participate in table conversation! The weaving room was my favorite. There was a spinning wheel, a thread winder and a loom. The loom was so big. I would love to try it but, alas, that was not happening.

After climbing back down the hill, the bus took us to the ship. I had beef stroganoff for lunch. It was very good, but I was surprised to see pickles among the ingredients. I'm going to have to try and find the recipe later. We ate with a former Navy draftsman from Colorado, a woman who runs an internship program for economics students at a university in New York City and her granddaughter, a senior in high school from New Jersey.

Last night, we saw on the BBC, that Chuck Hagel is resigning as the secretary of defense, but it didn’t say why. This morning, we found out more details when the waitress brought me USA Times. John was excited to see Green Bay won and the Lions lost.

After lunch, we went to the sun deck to watch as we sailed through the castle region. It was so cold up there!

We docked in Riedisheim around 5 p.m. We all bundled up and headed to the holiday market. The sauerbraten at a local restaurant was much different than our family recipe.

Returning to the ship, we finished our Trivial Pursuit game. We won! John and I finally beat Aunt Debbie! Even though we won that game, Aunt Debbie soon beat us all at Rummy. It was fun though. By the time we left the lounge, we were all singing show tunes and talking about musicals Kaity needs to see.

November 26, 2014, Night

Today, we visited Heidelberg. We docked in Gernsheim and took a bus to Heidelberg. Our tour guide was very good. He is a student at the university studying German philology. I couldn’t believe all the facts and dates he remembered. For instance, I learned the first automobile was invented by Karl Benz in 1886. The tour guide said no one would invest in it at first. Karl’s wife, apparently fed up with being broke, decided to take the car and her two sons to visit her sister, who lived a day’s drive away. People were obviously curious as she drove down the street and she got a lot of publicity, which caused people to invest. The guide even said, along the way to her sister’s, she ran out of fuel. So she stopped at a pharmacy, bought the ingredients for fuel, mixed it herself and refueled! She even invented brake lines using her stockings. What would Karl have done without Mrs. Benz?

We saw Heidelberg castle and learned all about Friedrich V and the love he had for his British Stuart wife, Elizabeth. We also learned how he helped cause the Thirty Years’ War. At the castle we saw the largest wine barrel in the world. It was pretty ridiculous. We also saw the “pagan building,” commissioned by Friedrich IV. It had statues of Roman gods right next to biblical figures. We also learned about Martin Luther and how he affected Europe.

After the castle, we walked around the town. I found a yarn store and got some great wool yarn. We ate bratwurst and fries, they call them pommes, for lunch. I can’t believe how much better the brats are here. I don’t even like them at home.

After a nap, I went to a presentation on other Viking tours. I would love to go to Russia! We had a “taste of Germany” for dinner. It was just a big buffet with different German foods. We even got to see the galley, which was cool. There was a great accordion player performing during dinner. He walked around to the different tables. He was lively and fun.

After dinner, there was a music quiz game put on by the program director, Gary from Nottingham. We had to answer various questions about song snippets the piano player played.

On the ship, they serve these certain snacks. They are peanuts shelled in round cheesy chips. So good!

November 27, 2014, Night

Happy Thanksgiving! Today, we visited Strasbourg, France. We docked in Kehl, Germany then crossed the bridge into France. Having already visited Paris twice, I feel that French culture resonates with me more than German culture. This stop was particularly interesting to me because this is the region my Grandpa Kieffer’s family came from.

We saw the European Union Parliament and other EU buildings. We also visited another cathedral. We passed the church where Bach performed his works. I wish we would have visited that church instead. The city was setting up their holiday market, the oldest in Europe apparently, which starts in two days. After the cathedral tour, John went on a Mercedes factory tour while Aunt Debbie, Kaity, and I stayed in Strasbourg. I had tarte flambé and chocolat glacé, French ice cream, for lunch. Tarte flambé is like a thin crust pizza with cream sauce, cheese, onions, and lardon (pork).

I bought a stuffed stork key-chain; storks are a symbol of the region. I named him Andrei, but Kaity insists on calling him Jeffery; she calls everything Jeffery.

After a very long walk back to the bus, we came back to the ship.

Another entry for The Adventures of Being Blind: I almost fell in a manhole. Between two racks of an outdoor souvenir shop, I noticed an orange cone, pretty unobtrusive actually. I almost stepped right around it. At the last moment, I saw the uncovered manhole. That was close! I was only one or two steps away.

After returning to the ship, I Skyped my mom to talk to her and my brother, TJ, for Thanksgiving. He was in rare form today.

The dining room served turkey (from a loaf), mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie (with vanilla ice cream). It wasn’t as good as home, but at least I didn’t have to do the dishes.

November 28, 2014, Evening

We docked in Breisach this morning. We took a leisurely stroll into town. After a little while, Aunt Debbie and Kaity went back to the ship, and John and I decided to climb a giant tower to look down on the town. After our descent, I went back to the ship for lunch and John went to see the town hall.

After lunch, we boarded a bus that took us to the Black Forest. We wound our way through green rolling hills, often confronted by a wall of evergreens. Along the road, there was a stream. It leapt over rocks and landed in foamy white bubbles. We wound up and up and up, surrounded by mist, not seeing the tops of the towering trees. We arrived at the monastery and briefly saw sunshine and blue skies. Disembarking, I was bit by the cold air. The mist soon engulfed me. The air was wet and grassy and smelled of wood smoke. A single bird chirruped.

Leaving the monastery, I stopped in a bakery to buy a pretzel. Its firm, sticky exterior gave way to a soft interior, leaving only a hint of salt behind. Returning to the coach, we continued to ascend. Finally breaking through the mist, I looked down on the mist soup dotted with floating treetops. We entered Hell’s Valley and stopped at a small village. I decided to hike into the Black Forest.

When approaching the forest, I saw a few trees that stood in the foreground. The rest blended into a dark curtain. A stone railroad bridge announced the entrance to the trail. Upon entering, I felt society slip away. The threads woven by the Grimms were surely spun here.

Along the steep trail, there was a river. It was loud enough that I had to shout to be heard, but soft enough that I could still hear the babbling undertones. I crossed wooden bridges and kept climbing. Up and up until my legs shook with strain. I then turned around and followed the path from whence I came, stopping along the way to bask in the atmosphere.

Returning to town, I shared black forest cake with Aunt Debbie then went to the cuckoo clock shop. The clock maker was very friendly and gave me “a gift from the Black Forest,” two small pinecone shaped clock weights. After visiting the glass blowing shop, I watched the giant clock. The building the clock workshop was in is a giant cuckoo clock. It was chiming when we got back on the bus.

On the way back to the ship, our guide, Peter, used a doll to talk about traditional pom-pom hats. He even did the doll’s voice. It was so funny! He also sang some Black Forest folk songs and some French songs. He played the accordion as well. After arriving on the ship, we had a really late dinner. The dessert was the best I ever had. It was something with chocolate and mousse and a wafer of some sort. I don’t know, but it was amazing. Tomorrow, we will fly out of Basel, Switzerland. Time to head home.

After the fact.

We were shuttled to the airport in Basel where we took a short flight to Frankfurt, Germany.

There was only an hour between when our first flight landed and our second departed. I thought we would be fine until I realized we had to go through customs. It was tight, but we made it just as they were closing the doors. The airline asked us tons of questions about who packed our checked luggage as well as when and where it was packed. Everyone was already on board the flight when we were seated.

The airplane we took to Chicago was much bigger than the one we took to Amsterdam, so I barely felt it moving. Even though I tried to wash my hands after practically everything, I still wound up with a cold. The man sitting next to John on the way home kept coughing, so it was probably courtesy of him.

Close to landing, the stewardess gave me the standard Customs form;:the one that requires a list of what is being brought into the country and asks questions about seeds and soil. I filled it out like normal. However, it seems customs has a new process. Why they gave me the form to fill out when they weren’t even going to use it? I don’t know.

After waiting in a very long line, we stepped up to a machine. First, I had to scan my passport. Then, a camera on the machine took my picture. The machine asked me if I was bringing seeds, soil, etc., but I was not required to list every knickknack I brought back with me. Thank you Customs!

Since John and I traveled together, he was asked to scan his passport and take a photo as well. Then the machine printed out receipts with our pictures on them. A Customs agent checked the receipts and released us to collect our luggage.

I couldn’t believe our luggage made it on the same plane, since we were barely able to get there in time. After collecting our bags, we had to give our picture receipts to another Customs agent before leaving the airport.

The new customs process seems more secure, but doesn’t seem to be as fast as the former process.

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    D. Lieber has a wanderlust that would make a butterfly envious. When she isn’t planning her next physical adventure, she’s recklessly jumping from one fictional world to another. Her love of reading led her to earn a Bachelor’s in English from Wright State University.

    Beyond her skeptic and slightly pessimistic mind, Lieber wants to believe. She has been many places—from Canada to England, France to Italy, Germany to Russia—believing that a better world comes from putting a face on “other.” She is a romantic idealist at heart, always fighting to keep her feet on the ground and her head in the clouds.

    Lieber lives in Wisconsin with her husband (John) and cats (Yin and Nox).

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