This is a travel report that I wrote in 1985 to send to friends. Here it is again, very lightly edited.
I’d never been to a World Esperanto Congress before. In fact, my only experiences of the spoken language had been at this year’s British Congress in Llandudno and an earlier meeting in Grantham. However, I bravely decided to take part in the 70th World Esperanto Congress, Augsburg, 1985. It would last a week; but I allowed myself more than two weeks in Germany, reckoning to find something else to do after the congress.
On the first of August I packed my things and departed for London, to spend the night at my mother’s eyrie in Kew before catching the 9:10 flight from Heathrow to Munich (or, as the natives obstinately refer to it, München). For once, I arrived at the airport well in advance of the flight, and the consequent feeling of security and relaxation was a useful antidote to the waves of nervous tension that bounce off every flat surface in a busy airport.
After more than sixty previous flights, but more recently a four-year abstinence, the experience of flying was comfortingly familiar and yet pleasantly novel. Aircraft interior design has hardly changed since I was flying VC10s to Lagos twenty or more years ago. But I was pleased with the beauty and serenity of the cloudscape. One thing I don’t remember seeing before: an aircraft going the other way. It zipped past impossibly fast, as though in vacuum — an incongruous contrast with the slow scene patiently unfolding below.
After the bus to the railway station, the train to Augsburg, the bus to my pre-booked hotel, and the same bus back to the city centre, I located the Augsburg tourist office, where I was directed to a photographic shop and deposited my first film for processing. Having just had my standard lens repaired, I was anxious to confirm that the thing now worked (it did).
I then wandered around the city centre awhile before locating the restaurant mentioned in the Congress Book as the location for that evening’s meal for officials of UEA (Universala Esperanto-Asocio). I figured that they’d probably taken advice from the LKK (Loka Kongresa Komitato), and would have found somewhere moderately decent.
Augsburg is a modern industrial city with a venerable past, and is celebrating its two-thousandth anniversary this year. It has quite a pleasant pedestrian precinct in the centre, featuring buildings old and new. Among the former is the imposing Rathaus (town hall), whose capacious cellar has recently been converted into a restaurant: my destination.
Now, the Rathaus wasn’t hard to find — it forms the centrepiece of the pedestrian precinct. But the main door was closed. In due course I discovered a menu card displayed in a little niche beside an unmarked side door, which opened into a dim, cavernous hall. To the left of the doorway a wide flight of stone stairs descended, beneath lampholders jutting from each wall, to a massive, carved wooden door, again unmarked. The walls disappeared upwards to encounter a ceiling somewhere up there in the gloom.
Gingerly I tiptoed down the stairs. What was behind the door? (What has it got in its pocketses?) I felt in imminent danger of turning into a hobbit and opening the door on a party of orcs. Nevertheless I opened it — into a large, well-lit room with widely-spaced tables freshly laid with pink tablecloths (it was about 6 p.m.). A waiter walked briskly up to me as I stood gaping, and conducted me to a seat.
It was a bit like eating in a ancient church. The high, domed ceiling of bare brick was supported by great pillars four feet thick. The walls were painted clean white but hung with large, dim paintings of anonymously forbidding old gentlemen. The expanse of the room might have seemed unpleasantly refectory-like without the neat wooden partitions extending from the pillars, which succeeded in giving a certain feeling of intimacy to each little group of tables.
Oddly enough, it felt a friendly sort of place; the staff were pleasant, and provided me with an English menu after hearing me speak German. The food was (as I later discovered) above average for Augsburg, and I had some excellent German red wine with it. It cost me £14 altogether, which was more than I wanted to spend for a typical meal, but a pleasant way to start the holiday.
Part of the room was partitioned off for the large group of UEA committee members, and during my dessert I could hear them chatting and making speeches in Esperanto, but as a nonentity yet to achieve fluency in the language I felt no urge to impose my company on them. I tend to be rather timid in these situations; had he been with me, I daresay James O’Fee would have insisted on joining in and making a speech himself.
I had to wait a long time for the bill. Later I ate there again, and deduced that the place was under-staffed: as soon as diners arrived in any number, the wait for service became interminable.
Following the meal, I sauntered out to the nearest bus stop. Before coming in to the city centre, I’d prudently checked the times of the bus returning to the stop near my hotel (as displayed at the stop). What I hadn’t realised was that, although that bus continued to serve outlying areas until late, it cut off its service to the city centre early in the evening.
So I walked back to the hotel. It took over an hour, but was quite a pleasant walk and I was in no hurry. I was surprised to be able to saunter through the back streets of a strange foreign city without feeling the sort of apprehension that sometimes preys on lonely nocturnal walkers. At the time, glowing slightly from the wine, I felt it to be a friendly city; more realistically, it’s a prosperous enough city to have a well-maintained appearance, and simply doesn’t look the sort of place where footpads lurk in the shadows.
Next day I discovered that the part of the bus service that cut off in the evening was covered until late at night by a frequent tram service. However, the distance of the hotel from the city centre and the congress continued to be a nuisance, and all of us in the hotel (which housed about thirty Esperantists) spent too much time commuting. I missed some congress events simply through mistiming my travelling.
Hotels, I should explain, were booked for us by the LKK’s accommodation service, on the basis of our specified price guidelines. Augsburg is one of the more expensive places to stay in Bavaria, perhaps especially in its anniversary year. This does, incidentally, make it seem an odd choice for an Esperanto congress (Esperantists not being noted for affluence). However, there were almost 2300 people attending the congress, and the availability of decent congress facilities for such a large number of people must constrain the choice of venue considerably.
The following day the congress hall opened for business, and I went along to buy my cheap bus pass, a £4 ticket specially negotiated for the congress that gave us full use of all buses and trams in the city for the congress week — very useful, especially for those of us stuck out in the sticks.
The official opening ceremony of the congress, held in a sports arena to cope with the numbers, was devoted mainly to speeches of welcome from various German and foreign dignitaries, mostly speaking through interpreters, though two of them spoke in Esperanto: an Austrian lady vice-consul (brief, clear, and to the point), and an American consul (long, rather hesitant, but a good effort, rather under-applauded I thought). The Chinese ambassador got the best applause, though I don’t know whether that was because of his status, his age, the clarity of his interpreter, or the fact that next year’s World Congress will be in Peking. I was pleased to see a Member of the European Parliament among the speakers, given the possible significance of the EP for the future of Esperanto.
Humphrey Tonkin (vice-president of UEA, and something of a orator) livened up the otherwise routine proceedings with a passionate speech invoking the ideal of world peace.
I found I could generally get the gist of what was going on; though, at my stage of experience with Esperanto, the clarity and audibility of the speech make a big difference.
The congress had a very crowded programme of events. It had at its disposal a large theatre, a large hall, numerous lecture rooms, and ample space for people to wander round, eat, drink, offer services, read notices, hold musical or theatrical rehearsals, etc. Most of these facilities seemed to be in simultaneous use at any given time. However, I attended few of the programmed events. Many of them were aimed at particular areas of specialisation; others seemed so vaguely defined that they’d probably consist mainly of waffle; and in any case I decided that I should ration my exposure to speeches and lectures, having found that the concentration required to listen to solid Esperanto for hours on end gave me a headache.
I attended part of an Esperantology conference, in which, among others, an Hungarian professor described his research into the basis of Zamenhof’s original Esperanto vocabulary (which has, of course, been greatly augmented over the years in the course of practical use). He concluded that Zamenhof based his vocabulary firstly on Russian, secondly on Polish, thirdly on German, with English further down the list somewhere. This rather surprised me, as much of the Esperanto vocabulary seems very familiar to an English speaker. However, I judged from the examples given that Russian and Polish have more in common with other European languages than I’d previously suspected; and I imagine that Esperanto takes new words from English much more commonly now than in Zamenhof’s time.
The final speaker in this section was of particular interest to me, as he was an employee of the Dutch firm BSO, which is working on the Distributed Language Translation project for computer translation between human languages. The project is aimed specifically at the translation of government and business documents.
The way it’s intended to work is that the source document will be translated by a computer program into a bridge language (Esperanto with some slight restrictions), which can then be distributed over a network. The recipient uses another computer program to translate the bridge language into his own. The intention is that the latter process should be fast and fully automatic, so that anyone wanting to read a document would simply say which language he wanted it in, and get it translated on the spot. The process of translation into the bridge language, on the other hand, is envisaged as semi-automatic: the program does do most of the work, but can ask a human for guidance if necessary. The chosen programming language for the project is Prolog, and the project is expected to produce usable software by 1987.
I also attended parts of the ‘Congress University’ programme, in which academics gave talks on their specialities. In one of them, a young astrophysicist named Amri Wandel elected to introduce us to the history and current state of astronomy and astrophysics in the space of an hour. A tall order even if the slide projector had worked properly, but he gave a very comprehensible account, although it was elementary enough that I knew most of it already. He could easily have spent another hour expanding on his theme and answering questions.
But, for me, the undoubted highlight of the congress week was the Youth Evening, put together as an extra to the official programme. The idea was that the young performed but people of all ages were invited to attend.
After an introductory frolic, we were introduced to two members of Amplifiki, a Scandinavian rock group which apparently performed to some acclaim (with a Berlin group called La Mondanoj) at the recent Youth Congress. An enthusiastic review of that event compared the atmosphere to that at a Bruce Springsteen concert, and having heard this pair perform (on classical guitars, presumably in deference to the age range of the audience) I could begin to understand the enthusiasm. Well written songs sung well and with total commitment, competent guitar playing; well worth a listen regardless of language. But it took my breath away to hear a naturalness and emotional power in Esperanto that most singers fail to achieve in their mother tongue. That impressed me more than anything else I’ve come across in the Esperanto world. I wish I had a recording of it; I can hardly imagine better propaganda for the language. But apparently they haven’t even made a record yet.
There followed several other musical acts, good enough not to seem rubbish in comparison, and including Mike Sadler, who came on with a guitar and encouraged the audience to sing Esperanto versions of Blowing In The Wind, Where Have All The Flowers Gone, and a couple of other pacifist songs I didn’t know. I duly sang along with the first two, not too difficult as the words were helpfully displayed on a cinema screen. Surprisingly, the rather assorted audience sang along very well, presumably because the people who didn’t know the tune had the sense to keep quiet.
Then there was some sort of a pantomime, in which lots of people ended up on stage pretending to be trees, cows, insects, etc. Silly but amiable. Finally, those with the inclination were invited on stage to join in folk dancing, an opportunity I let pass.
During the official closing ceremony, I noted that the elderly Chinese speaker welcoming everyone to Peking next year spoke in clear, unaccented Esperanto.
I also noted that sf writer Harry Harrison was awarded an honorary membership, presumably because someone’s finally noticed the way he’s been plugging Esperanto in his books for years.
Finally, it was announced that the 1989 World Congress will be in Brighton, England, apparently because Brighton made an offer UEA couldn’t refuse: free use of a conference centre. I don’t think the 1988 venue has been arranged yet.
I went on two of the official excursions: a half-day coach tour of Munich on Monday, and a full-day coach trip to Neuschwanstein castle on Thursday (which was a public holiday in Augsburg).
Basically, I’m not keen on coach tours, and I’ll make more of an effort to avoid them in future. There’s no freedom of movement in a coach (unlike the train), and you’re stuck in it most of the time. Furthermore, the place you’re going to will probably have been chosen with such lack of imagination that it’ll be packed with other tourists by the time you get there. Well, that’s my experience.
The drive south on Thursday was actually quite pleasant, it was great to get out of the city and see mountains and woods, and I had a long chat (entirely in Esperanto) with Brady Moore, an American teaching English at a university in Taiwan. But Neuschwanstein castle was packed with tourists to a density you would not believe. We queued for more than an hour to get to the door. When I saw that the interior was packed with shuffling hordes, ten abreast wall to wall, I gave up, went down the hill, and took photos of a nice little lake nearby. But some of our party plodded doggedly through the castle and didn’t get out for hours.
During the Munich tour on Monday, I had a pleasant conversation with a Pole when we stopped briefly at the Nymphenburg castle. He claimed that congresses are better organised in Poland; I may test that assertion in 1987, when the World Congress will be in Warsaw. Apart from that, the trip was only memorable for the extreme heat (not really desirable on a coach tour) and the unexpected personal biography of our guide, which he revealed while we were stuck in a traffic jam.
He was, it turned out, Iranian — presumably chosen as guide on the strength of his Esperanto rather than his deep knowledge of the city. He spoke loudly, clearly, slowly, and monotonously, as though dictating to a deaf secretary. In this manner, he informed us that, following some disagreement with the government, he was obliged to flee Iran, and entered Iraq, where he was arrested, jailed, and subsequently moved to a concentration camp. Being a language teacher, he spent his time diligently instructing other prisoners in Esperanto, and other languages, and repeatedly went on hunger strike, the longest lasting 68 days. Eventually the Red Cross managed to get him out, and he arrived in Munich ten months ago, spending three months in hospital before emerging to join the local Esperanto group. He looked about forty, and showed no particular signs of his experiences, apart from a certain lack of humour.
There were so many Esperantists in the city that it was very common to meet them travelling around, easily identifiable by their congress name tags. The cheap bus pass encouraged them to use the buses, and several times I found myself on a bus or tram in which Esperantists outnumbered the bemused-looking natives.
I met Mike Sadler several times during the week; he was friendly as usual, but amazed at my affluent lifestyle. He manages to do everything ultra-cheap, and was camping out in a school hall near the congress, having hitched his way to Augsburg for a share of the fuel cost.
Ah well, these things are relative. Later I had a long and pleasant conversation (partly in English, at their choice) with two American couples who were staying in the 35-story Holiday Inn adjoining the congress, where the rooms cost at least double what I was paying for mine.
Especially among the younger and keener Esperantists, it’s considered very bad form to use your native language at an Esperanto congress; this is known as crocodiling (krokodili). As far as I can tell from very limited experience, the French seem to be the worst offenders, followed by the Americans. I was surprised to find that the British Esperantists I met were generally very virtuous and stuck exclusively to Esperanto, though at least one married couple continued to speak English to each other.
One of those staying at my hotel was a man of Austrian/Polish descent from Baltimore, who’d been accompanying a blind man to Esperanto congresses for five years. This year the blind man decided not to come, but his friend decided to come on his own, despite knowing no Esperanto, because he likes travelling, likes Germany, likes Esperantists, and has made a number of friends among them, via the several other languages he does speak.
I had a good look round the Book Service, a sizeable room well filled with Esperanto books of all kinds, plus records, cassettes, stickers, badges, etc. Bearing in mind that I’d have to carry anything I bought around Germany for the following week, I bought a few stickers and a small collection of science fiction stories: Sferoj 3. ‘Sferoj’ is a bit of word play: it means ‘spheres’, but it can also be interpreted to mean ‘particles of sf’. The stories in this collection emanate from eastern Europe, and the ones I’ve read so far don’t seem likely to take the world by storm; but I was interested to find that I can read Esperanto fiction without too much effort; I hadn’t tried it before.
Looking for cheaper places to eat, I became pretty depressed about the state of Bavarian cooking. In ordinary, unpretentious restaurants (and my hotel), the emphasis was firmly on meat, served up in dull slabs with a nominal vegetable accompaniment (sauerkraut, perhaps) and an oily pile of Spätzle, the Bavarian version of pasta. Salads were not always on the menu, and, when available, were almost invariably drowning in vinegar.
It’s a commonplace that French restaurants are better than German; but some of the places I found in Augsburg (and Munich) were pretty bad even by English standards. Maybe I was unlucky.
While shopping in Augsburg, I noticed that German wine was incredibly cheap in shops. I estimated that prices for the same quality of wine would be three or four times higher in England. Most bottles were selling for about £1, even some wines marked Auslese, and I saw hardly anything over £2 except two bottles of Beerenauslese for £9 and £12 respectively.
Unfortunately, German restaurants seem to put at least a 200% markup on wine, which largely nullifies the price advantage to the tourist, unless you like knocking back lukewarm shop-bought wine in your hotel room. Furthermore, I seem unable to appreciate the typical German medium white wine these days, it doesn’t do anything for me at all; I’m better off with the rarer dry and red wines.
What I settled on in the end was called ‘Weinschorle’, an equal mixture of wine and mineral water. I hadn’t come across this in Berlin, but it was very commonly offered in Bavaria, and made a refreshing and economical long drink, often served in a half-litre glass. Sometimes it even cost less than the same amount of plain mineral water.
So, the congress broke up and dispersed. What did I think of it? Well, good in parts. It was encouraging to see the language being used by a large, international community of people in a routine manner. I personally had agreeable conversations with quite a large number of people from various different countries.
On one occasion, I happened to be sitting in a restaurant near an elderly German Esperantist from Potsdam (now living in West Berlin), when two young Americans came in and sat down at the same table. I amused myself by chatting to Herr Heinrich in Esperanto for a while before speaking to the Americans in English, and proceeded to show off by continuing to talk to all three of them in alternating languages. The Americans didn’t speak German and had never heard of Esperanto before, so I hope they were impressed. Incidentally, it’s very rare that I meet someone who’s never even heard of Esperanto.
Given my lack of practice, I’m still amazed that I can hold long conversations in Esperanto, read newspapers (some people from the magazine Monato produced a daily congress newspaper), magazines, stories, understand speeches — albeit with some difficulty. It was constantly apparent to me that I’m rapidly achieving an adequate working knowledge of Esperanto that is already way ahead of my performance in French or German (I studied French at school for some six years, and lived in Germany for a total of 18 months or more).
So, my experiences with the language were generally encouraging, but most of the scheduled events weren’t very entertaining in themselves, as far as I could judge. To be fair, they’re not meant to be. The World Congress is a social event, but to serious-minded Esperantists it’s also a rare opportunity for group discussion and serious work. People who merely want a holiday can try one of the other Esperanto holidays on offer.
Personally, I was attracted by the idea of a World Congress in southern Germany, where I quite fancied going anyway, and as the World Congress is the biggest yearly gathering of Esperantists, I thought it would be something worth seeing. I think it was.
For the record, this year’s attendance figures break down by nation as follows: West Germany (the home team) 526, France 261, Poland 161, Netherlands 150, Italy 139, Hungaria 115, USA 105, Sweden 93, Finland 82, Belgium 80, Britain 78, Bulgaria 65, Japan 51, Jugoslavia 40, Switzerland 34, Austria 30, Spain 28, Denmark 27, Norway 26, Canada 24, Israel 23, China 13, Czechoslovakia 13, Iran 13, Brazil 12, Australia 10, Greece 9, Venezuela 9, Colombia 6, East Germany 6, Iceland 6, Ireland 6, Malta 6, South Korea 6, Luxembourg 5, Argentina 4, Soviet Union 4, Canary Islands 3, Mexico 3, New Zealand 3, Portugal 3, South Africa 3, Cuba 2, Rwanda 2, Rumania 2, Chile 1, Hong Kong 1, India 1, Jamaica 1, Taiwan 1, Turkey 1, Zaire 1. That’s a total of 2294, plus one whose origin is unrecorded, and nine who died after registering for the event.
Of course, only a small proportion of Esperantists have the requisite interest, commitment, and money to attend a World Congress in any given year. Even for those who’ve decided on an Esperanto holiday, there are hundreds of competing Esperanto holidays going on all year round, some of them in permanent Esperanto holiday centres. The proportion attending from the various countries of the world will also depend on how easy it is for them to get to the congress venue.
After a few days in Augsburg, I was standing at a bus stop when I realised I didn’t really feel much more out of place there than I do in Kenilworth. If someone offered me a job there, I could move in, settle down, and in no time at all I’d be no worse off than I am here. This thought was reassuring in a way (as I am looking out for another job), but it’s also rather sad to think that I can live somewhere for eight years and totally fail to put down any roots, even in my ‘own’ country. I seem to be an alien everywhere — indeed, I’ve always had the feeling that I was really born on another planet, or in another time, and don’t belong in this world at all.
Down & out in Upper Bavaria
But I set off with a sense of anticipation into my second week, in which nothing was pre-planned and I had no idea where I might end up — though I definitely wanted to leave the city behind and see something of the Alps.
I decided to buy a Bezirkswochenkarte giving unrestricted rail travel for a week throughout Upper Bavaria (that is, south-east Bavaria). However, I had more than a week yet to run, so on Sunday (11th of August) I travelled the short distance to Diessen, a smallish lakeside resort town on Ammersee, having earlier picked up some documentation on the place from the Augsburg tourist office. I checked in there at the Gasthof Alte Post, which was cheap and decent, but right on the main street. Fortunately it wasn’t noisy enough to keep me awake.
After a long walk around the environs of Diessen, I determined that there wasn’t much to do there except go out on the lake, so I hired a rowing boat and cultivated blisters for an hour. The idea was that I could take photos more easily from a rowing boat, and go sailing the next day. As it happened, the next day was an almost flat calm, so I sat for some time on the jetty in the sunshine, peacefully watching the boats inching their way over the lake. I know from experience how boring it is trying to sail in such weather.
Ammersee is the third largest lake in Upper Bavaria: the same length as Lake Windermere but more than twice as wide. Very suitable for sailing, though it’d be more interesting if there were islands. There are fish called Renke in the lake; my dictionary doesn’t translate the word, but they taste good. The food at the Gasthof was better value than I’d been used to in Augsburg, and it was evidently popular with the locals. At one meal, having forgotten my dictionary, I pointed randomly at the menu, and ended up with an omelette containing something soft and meaty. I later translated it as pig’s brains.
I was woken in the middle of Monday night by thunder and lightning of such amazing frequency and ferocity that I wondered for a moment if the Third World War had started. I would have taken photos, but the fury of the storm was such that I didn’t dare stay at the window for fear of being struck. The town’s power supply cut out. However, everything was back to normal by morning.
I took the train to Weilheim, a dull-looking town where I was able to buy my Bezirkswochenkarte, and immediately used it to move on south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a well-known tourist resort surrounded by majestic mountains that take your breath away as you arrive. I suppose the locals get used to the sight. The place is obviously full of tourists all year round, many of them American, and there’s an American military base of some sort as well. So English was very widely spoken.
I called in at the tourist office to get a list of hotels. The list was long, but most of them were apparently full up. I walked a good way through the town, with my luggage, to find the first vacancy on the list; and, having found it, didn’t feel up to plodding off again to sample the competition. It was quite a nice little place, in quiet surroundings away from the main street; it was dearer than the Gasthof Alte Post, but cheaper than my hotel in Augsburg; but the only room available was also the only room without a bath. When I enquired about access to one, the woman who ran the place said dubiously that if I wanted to bath I could pay her ten marks and she’d find me a bath somewhere. In the end she was never around when I wanted a bath, so I washed myself as best I could in the handbasin for the two nights I was there. She did perform one useful function, by giving me directions to a laundry (hard to find in Germany).
The Germans could have done a lot worse with Garmisch-P. It gets a lot of tourists, and the busy main street is inevitably rather soulless, despite the mountains looming all around. But go just a block or two off the main street, and it becomes much quieter and rather pretty, the attractive Alpine buildings all adorned with the generous sprays of flowers in window boxes that seem obligatory over most of Upper Bavaria.
On the day I arrived, I took the train a bit further up the line to Klais, a village on the way to Mittenwald, and spent a couple of hours walking over the hills looking for a nice lake to photograph. The first one I found was called Grubsee and was polluted with people, but plodding on I found that Baumsee was miraculously almost deserted, and very picturesque. I managed to live cheaply that day, on shop-bought food and tap water. I’d begun to take alarm at the amount of money I was spending.
The next day I missed most of the ample breakfast by dashing off to catch the first train up the Zugspitze, billed as Germany’s highest mountain. It occurred to me before going that high mountains were reputed to be chilly, so I wore long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, and put my waterproof jacket in the backpack with the camera lenses.
I’d found early in the previous week that carrying my camera gear and other odds and ends around in my shoulder bag was killing me, and bought a smallish backpack (having forgotten to bring one with me). As it turned out, the one I bought, though quite cheap, was better than the one I left behind, and proved extremely useful. Surely the best way to carry camera gear on long walks; though it makes it slightly more difficult to get at what you’re carrying (e.g. to change lenses).
The train pulled out at 7:35, and we changed at Grainau to the rack railway, which passed by Eibsee before plunging into a long tunnel. There are two routes to the Zugspitze summit (2963 metres above sea level); one is to take a long cable car journey from Eibsee; the other is to continue on the rack railway to the Schneefernerhaus mountain hotel (2650 metres), and take a different cable car from there. The round-trip ticket entitles you to go up one way and come down the other way; and I noticed that the Schneefernerhaus stop offered a mountain walk.
At this point I made a mistake: I stayed on the train and did the Schneefernerhaus bit first. This meant that I didn’t get to the summit till afternoon, when it was crowded, the view was hazy, and there were queues to get up there and queues to get down again. Ah well, so it goes.
It was fairly cool in the tunnel; but, as soon as we emerged at the Schneefernerhaus, the sun was shining bright and it was hot. I never needed my jacket.
I went in search of the mountain walk. Oddly, the hotel seemed to have no interest in helping people to find it; but eventually I emerged from a door, noticed a line of people staggering down the slope away from the hotel, and set off in their wake. I immediately wondered whether this was a mistake. The mountains at that height are bare rock, stones, and boulders, with large patches of snow here and there despite the heat of the sun. The slope was steep and covered deeply with stones, and the path across it was a pretty cursory affair — one seemed in imminent danger of ending up as part of a landslide.
Fortunately, that slope of stones below the hotel was the worst part. Afterwards, it was still rather awkward walking, with a risk of twisted ankles; but fairly straightforward for all that. It was a marked path: flagposts were embedded in the rock here and there to suggest a course.
It wasn’t crowded out there, but there was generally someone in sight, and I passed a number of people coming back the other way. We greeted each other with a cheery "Grüss Gott": there seems to be a certain sense of fellowship among mountain walkers. I also passed a column of soldiers, who didn’t look happy, though one of them grinned and returned my greeting. What a feeble bunch, I thought scornfully; forgetting that I was walking downhill and they were walking up.
I was enjoying myself. The view was spectacular, the weather was fine, the air was clear. There were mountain sheep up there, nosing at scraps of grass, and jangling their bells melodiously, as if rehearsing for King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. I passed by one of them, and patted it nervously. It seemed tame enough; but another one looked at me indignantly and stamped its foot.
After descending quite a distance across the mountain, I came upon a most improbable little hotel stuck out on a cliff in the middle of nowhere. I presume its supplies come by helicopter. The path continued on, but I had a summit to visit, so I drank some mineral water and set off back the way I’d come. I began to realise why the soldiers weren’t looking happy. It was a very long, steep climb. I was pleased to overtake a few people, including a slim, tanned German of about my age, properly equipped with walking boots and shorts; but I was exhausted by the time I sighted the Schneefernerhaus and had to scramble back up that damned pile of stones. I went on all fours for part of it.
On the way, I learned why people wore boots. The patches of snow were at least a foot deep, and I got snow in my shoes as well as pebbles. It may be that boots also give better ankle support. My ankles were tested a few times, but they seem stronger now than they used to be.
I got my breath back standing in the queue for the cable car to the summit, then duly went up and took my photos from the restaurant complex they’ve built up there, which seems to be to the side of, but now higher than, the original summit that nature made. There’s certainly a good view, overlapping mountain peaks in all directions, and Eibsee in particular looks extremely picturesque from there, a lovely colour. But I didn’t see much reason to stay up there long among the other tourists, and got in line to wait 40 minutes for my turn in the cable car down to Eibsee. I chatted to a young American couple in the queue. They were staying in a hotel in Munich, which is quite sensible in a way, because Munich is the focal point of the rail network, and you can make day trips from it to anywhere in Bavaria that takes your fancy.
At Eibsee, I discovered that the lake, which looks so pretty from high up, is of course polluted with people. The Americans set off to walk round it, but they hadn’t been on the mountain walk. I gave up, and had a drink and an ice cream in a café before catching the train back down to Garmisch. After trying unsuccessfully to pick up my laundry (they’d forgotten to do it), I collapsed in my room and slept fitfully for almost twelve hours.
In the morning (of the 15th) I checked out, picked up my laundry, and caught the 9:35 train to Munich, changed trains and arrived at Bernau on Chiemsee. Chiemsee is the biggest lake in the area, and I planned to do some sailing before moving on to Berchtesgaden for the weekend.
It was another hot day. I trudged a very long way from the station to the tourist office, with my luggage, only to find that it was a public holiday and the office was shut. People having lunch on the balconies of roadside restaurants looked at me complacently as I trudged back again. There was a hotel near the station. It had a sign up saying there were rooms free, but the place was closed until four.
You know, it’s a myth that the Germans work hard. They have a public holiday every week, they close their shops according to individual preference one other weekday of each week, they close on Saturday afternoons, and they close for a couple of hours for lunch.
Bernau is a widely spread out town, as if designed exclusively for car owners. The lake was distantly visible in the opposite direction from that of the closed tourist office. I plodded off towards it; but I was getting an accumulation of bad vibes from the place. I detoured back to the station, ascertained that the next train back to Munich wouldn’t be for another hour (because it was a public holiday) and decided to wait for it.
In the interim I bought a can of Coca-Cola, which was all that seemed to be available in the vicinity, and talked to a young black American soldier (not in uniform) who was also waiting for the train. It’s a long time since I’ve drunk Coca-Cola; it tasted even more revolting than I remembered. The soldier had heard the name of Esperanto, but didn’t know what it was. When I told him, he was polite but seemed sceptical.
When the train arrived it was very full. I stood in the corridor all the way to Munich, wondering at the endless procession of people walking from one end of the train to the other. Admittedly, many of them were children with nothing better to do.
(I should say that, despite this isolated patch of discomfort, the German trains were generally very comfortable and convenient, and it was a great freedom to be able just to wander onto a train whenever I felt like it and make up my mind on the journey where I was going to get off.)
I was also wondering where I was going. Berchtesgaden would obviously be a big tourist resort similar to Garmisch-P, and I wasn’t feeling up to it. I decided to try a quieter place I’d noticed previously in the tourist brochures. Accordingly, I changed trains in Munich and went there.
Bayrischzell did indeed seem somewhat quieter than G-P, and prettier and more friendly than Bernau. The tourist office was, of course, shut, but wasn’t far from the station and had the sense to display a list of hotels on the wall outside. Most of them were on the main street, which I could easily see carried a fair amount of traffic, so I set off towards the Hotel Schönbrunn, which was further away but more secluded.
The room cost almost £16 a night, which was more than I wanted to pay, but after seeing it I decided it was what I needed. It was a spacious, pleasant room on the first floor, with its own large bathroom, and a balcony looking out on a lovely view down the valley. The bathroom window looked out over a stream into pine forest. It was well away from the traffic. I proceeded to bath very thoroughly.
Then I went out for a meal, and found the Gasthof zur Post, where I had some wine and a large pork chop with sauerkraut, and chatted a bit with three women of various ages playing poker dice on the same table. Two of them were visiting a health farm to lose weight, the other was a journalist from Munich just down for one night. It was quite a pleasant evening. The Gasthof even provided entertainment — a singing accordionist.
Come Friday morning, I was in my room changing my clothes, clad only in a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of socks, when a girl of about twenty burst into the room and started jabbering at me in German. Correctly judging from my expression that communication had not been established, she hopefully repeated the only English word she could think of — ‘tipsy’ — and gesticulated. I passed her a dictionary, and surreptitiously donned a pair of pants while she thumbed through it. With great difficulty she found what she was looking for and pointed at it triumphantly: ‘noise’.
Soon after this, she decided that the language barrier was not to be overcome in this way, and retreated, leaving me to wonder whether, perhaps, she’d been trying to invite me to a party . . .
(In retrospect, I suppose I can now claim to have represented the art of British farce in a foreign land.)
The puzzle was resolved later when I encountered the same girl in the street with a friend who spoke English. It turned out that my intruder had been woken at 4 a.m. by a drunk banging on her door, and apparently wanted to eliminate me from her list of suspects. She also seemed amazed that I hadn’t been woken by the noise.
I sent off some postcards saying how hot it had been, and so of course it rained all afternoon, which was rather depressing, because there’s not much to do in Bayrischzell when it’s raining.
On Saturday it was still rather wet, so I decided to take the train to Munich (again) and visit the zoo. It’s a pleasant enough little zoo, competently laid out, but I felt sorry for the animals. Those with decipherable expressions generally seemed to exude a mixture of boredom, despair, and hopelessness — very much what a human would feel in the same circumstances. Maybe all zoos are like that — it’s a long time since I last visited one. I believe zoo supporters claim that animals in the wild are starving and diseased, and they’re really better off in the zoo. I wonder what the animals would have to say about it.
I missed a train back and ate a fairly vile meal in a pizzeria beside the Frauenkirche. Someone had poured half a bottle of vinegar over the salad, and I don’t know why I ask for lasagne in restaurants because it’s always awful.
On Sunday it still looked a bit wet, but as it was my last full day I decided to brave the weather and go walking. Hedging my bets, I set out in short-sleeved shirt and shorts, with my waterproof jacket in the backpack with the camera lenses. I walked first to Osterhofen, one stop back up the railway line, to investigate a cable car up the Wendelstein (1838 metres above sea level). However, the Wendelstein was shrouded in cloud, and I’d just missed a departure, so I had a hamburger and mineral water for lunch, and set off in the opposite direction towards a little lake I’d spotted on the map.
The path was a decent gravelled track through pine forest, gradually climbing more steeply until at the end it zigzagged up a steep, stony crest, just over the top of which was a small green lake: Soinsee. I walked the length of it and round a corner at the far end before deciding to return, by a different route, to Bayrischzell.
The return route was prettier, over rough footpaths including, at one point, a dried-up stream bed. Whereas I’d encountered several small groups of people on the way up, I met no-one on this route down except a farmer who lived up there, and some cows complacently munching as they contemplated a splendid view up the valley of the Aubach towards the peaks of Austria. I used the camera’s self-timer to take a couple of photos of myself, propping it up on the backpack (not having brought a tripod!).
Returned to Bayrischzell about 7 p.m., had another bath, and belatedly found a surprisingly pleasant and competent restaurant (the Deutches Haus), where I had a good meal for £10 and was constantly amused by the background music. Over twenty years, it seems, records mature from being played loudly at parties and discos to being played quietly over pink tablecloths in the intimate lighting of a dignified provincial restaurant.
In all, I’d spent about 8 hours walking that day, and felt I was covering ground about as fast as most people would have been able to; so it’s rather disappointing to find from the 1:30,000 Wanderkarte that the round trip I made measures a mere 12.25 miles horizontally. However, bear in mind that I made numerous detours in search of photographic viewpoints; that the path zigzagged more than the map could represent; that Soinsee, at 1458 metres, is some 650 metres higher than Bayrischzell; and that on the way back I had a separate 200-metre climb to get around the side of another mountain. I felt quite good in the evening, and could have done more walking that day; but my legs felt a bit strange for several days afterwards.
And finally . . .
On Monday, of course, I departed for Munich and the airport, where it was that one of the wheels broke on my trusty eight-year-old Del Sey Trolleycase. This was a severe blow.
In my earlier life, I suffered so many agonising journeys with suitcases I could barely carry, that when I saw this wonderful invention in a Berlin shop in 1977 I had to have it. For those who haven’t seen it, the case has large, wide-gauge, retractable wheels set into its underside, and is much more stable than an ordinary wheeled suitcase (which has small, narrow-gauge wheels fitted as afterthoughts onto the corners of the case). It’s been so useful to me that I’ll buy another one if I can’t get this one repaired.
I had another pleasant flight back. I sat in a window seat on the way out and the way back, presumably because I’d checked in early. It’s funny how toylike houses and cars appear from a certain height. Just before landing at Heathrow, I experienced the curious illusion that I could reach out of the window, pick them up, and move them about.
But my main impression on returning to England was the relief of getting away from that lingering feeling of linguistic uncertainty. During the Esperanto congress, I’d had to use Esperanto and German continually, to speak to congress members and Augsburgers respectively; and I even met a few people who preferred to be spoken to in English. Consequently, I couldn’t deal with a simple greeting or casual apology without identifying which of three languages was appropriate for the person in question. This played hell with my reflexes, and led to some curious utterances on occasion.
And this situation persisted to some extent after the congress. Outside recognised international tourist areas, the average German in the street doesn’t seem to know English any better than I know German. But there is a substantial minority that speaks English with some degree of fluency. I always assumed the worst, and addressed strangers in German. But, of course, once it’s established that someone speaks English, it’s silly to go on belabouring him with pidgin German.
Counting the cost
It’s one of my hobbies to keep track of my expenditures. Like keeping a diary, it never seems to do me much good, but I carry on with it regardless, assisted of course by my trusty computer. Thus, I’m in a position to estimate that my 19-day holiday cost me about £629 more than I would have spent staying quietly at home over the same period. The apparent accuracy of this figure is spurious: I know my actual expenditures accurately, but of course my hypothetical expenditures in an alternative world can only be estimated from past averages.