Rainy Day In Germany

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
- Anon.

Oh, shut up.
- W. Sanders

It wasn't raining Friday morning when I boarded the train for Trier but it looked as if it could at any minute and sure enough, on the way down toward the border, it started to rain. It was raining here and there all along the Moselle valley and the woods and fields were glistening wet. Patches of mist clung to the hillsides above Wasserbillig - the last Luxembourg town before the frontier - and across the river in Germany.

Luxembourg is indeed a small country but there is still a lot more of it than you'd think looking at the map. Very beautiful, too, at least the stretch between Luxembourg City and Wasserbillig: steep wooded hills and broad green valleys, a lot like northwest Arkansas or southwest Missouri.

This was obviously not the first rainy day they'd had; in fact by all accounts it had been a very wet spring for western Europe. The Moselle was running very high; as one with some knowledge of rivers, I guessed that it wouldn't take much more to have it out of its banks.

Sure enough, it was raining in Trier, though not hard, just a light sprinkle. I stood in front of the station for a moment, looking around. It didn't look particularly German or particularly anything else, just another smallish European city. It was hard for me to believe I was actually in Germany.

I went back inside and asked the guy at the information desk where I could get some money changed. He pointed. "Three hundred meters up the street," he said, in not too heavily accented English, "on the right, is a bank."

I walked up the street, hearing that line in my head, thinking: yep, I'm in Germany, all right...and the fact that he turned out to be full of shit (I paced it off; I have almost exactly a one-meter stride, and it was a lot more than three hundred meters) somehow reinforced rather than weakened the stereotype.

In fact the citizens of Trier seemed determined to make up for all the other nationalities that had failed to live up to expectations. I wasn't surprised to see German pedestrians waiting for a light to change even when the street was empty; but these people were doing it in the rain - which by now was beginning to really come down - and even the ones without hats or umbrellas stood there patiently getting soaked until the light turned green. One guy did come up and start to cross against the light; the others yelled at him and he turned and trotted back, making apologetic gestures to indicate he hadn't noticed.

All this Teutonic orderliness would have blown the minds of the Romans who used to garrison this town; in their time they were the forces of law and order and Germans were wild crazy bastards who lurked in the forests to the east and would eat your lunch if you gave them a chance. (A Roman general named Varus, the Custer of his day, lost three legions when he tried to get tough with the Germans. Augustus was so shaken by the news that he went around for days banging his head against the walls and crying, "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!" - but he didn't get crazy enough to try to get even.) There was a time when this place was Fort Apache....

Even so, the Romans held Trier for a long time, and made themselves at home in their usual dogged way. The so-called "Black Gate" (actually yellow sandstone, darkened by the grime of centuries) was built in the fourth century, and by then it was already an old town; some of the ruins here are a couple of centuries older than that, and there is an ampitheater that goes back to the first century; officially the town was founded in 15 BC, during Augustus's administration. Which is to say it was a going concern during the lifetime of Jesus Christ, which is pretty damn impressive when you think of it.

Roman ruins don't usually do much for me, because I saw so many of them in Turkey, but there was something different about this place. Maybe you expect Roman buildings in the Mediterranean lands, but not up here in the northern forests.

I didn't get to see all that much of Trier and its antiquities; by midday the rain was really bucketing down and even though I was reasonably dry under my plastic poncho (at least I'd had sense enough to bring it this time) it was stupid to be walking around when I couldn't really see anything. I ducked under a bus-stop shelter and while I was thinking things over a bus showed up with a sign: HAUPTBAHNHOF. Even I knew what that meant; I climbed aboard and rode back to the station.

Across from the station was a little café with chalkboard signs out front advertising various dishes. They were written in that funny-looking German longhand and I couldn't read anything but the prices; but I picked a cheap one and picked the sign up and went over to the window and held it up and pointed. The waitress looked out the window and after a moment nodded briskly and motioned me in and showed me to a table.

The dish turned out to be sauerkraut and a big sausage; a little predictable, maybe, but pretty good. (Not necessarily the best sauerkraut I've ever had, but pretty good.) As I washed it down with a can of excellent beer I noticed that the rain had stopped.

So I went out walking again. The streets were wet and the sky was still clouded over but people were strolling around down in the commercial district, shopping or just hanging.

The big steeple sticking up above the self-consciously quaint buildings belongs to the twelfth-century Basilica of St. Mathias.

Down in this part of town there was no doubt about being in Germany. Not with all those corny-ass buildings...and believe it or not, there were worse ones, some so tacky-looking I couldn't bear to photograph them.

I mean, we're talking corny...it was embarrassing. I am about a quarter German and I'm telling you it was embarrassing.

On the other hand there was also this graffito that was not at all corny or quaint. I have no idea what it was about or who M. Dollnet may be but it brought me up short for a minute there. (Karl Marx was born in this town; perhaps his spirit wanders the streets armed with a spray can. St. Ambrose, by the way, was born here too. This town certainly cranks out some interesting characters.)

Well, they say everybody's getting in on Euro-business - evidently that means everybody. I had no idea.

And here we have the cathedral. You knew there'd be a cathedral, didn't you? This one is the Petersdom, aka St. Peter's, and goes back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It used to be the headquarters for the archbishops of Trier.

Pretty grim-looking place. But then I can't imagine that the archbishops of Trier were a very humorous bunch of guys. Being ex officio Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, they exercised great political as well as religious power, and looking at their HQ you get the idea they wanted to make sure everybody knew it. (I wonder if growing up in a town like this might have been the reason for Marx's fascination with the forces of history.)

I would have liked to see more of Trier; it was an intriguing place and the people on the whole seemed friendly and pleasant. (I did see one bunch of shaven-headed lads in leather jackets and boots. They were standing in the rain, waiting by an empty street for the light to change.)

But it was getting late and I wasn't sure of the train schedules back to Luxembourg; and besides, it looked as if it might be getting ready to rain some more. Reluctantly I walked back to the hauptbahnhof, where I found I had a little time to wait. I went over to the station snack bar and bought an apple pastry of conscious-expanding yumminess, and the first decent cup of coffee I'd had in Europe.

I mean, I know there are people who are going to get all bent out of shape about this: how dare I slander the wonderful French coffee, etc. etc. Bollocks to that. French coffee is ghastly. Thick, sludgy, gritty stuff, and bitter as battery acid; even worse than that Starbucks' crap my daughter drinks. (Sorry, kid, but I call 'em the way I see 'em.) French coffee in fact represents the one terrible shortcoming of an otherwise magnificent national cuisine; and the only coffee I had in Spain was just about as bad.

(This surprises me, because Cajun coffee is quite simply the finest in the world - I drink Cajun coffee at home, in fact, won't have any other in the house - and I had always assumed this was the French influence, but apparently not.)

But this German coffee was absolutely first-rate and I gulped it down greedily and got a refill which I savored sip by sip. I hadn't realized how much I'd been missing coffee - and I'm generally an eight-cup-a-day man - until now.

At last the train arrived and it was time to head back to Luxembourg.

See our hero in his room, having dinner. Yes, that object in his hand is a sandwich. I lived on sandwiches in Luxembourg; I never did succeed in getting a hot meal there, though I wandered all over the place looking for a decent dinner. The restaurants were mostly far too expensive for my budget and the cafés kept incomprehensible hours; whenever I did find a place with a reasonably-priced menu, it was only to be told that it was too late, the plat du jour was "all finished." I never did figure out when people eat in Luxembourg Ville, or where.

(Except that they eat a lot of pizza; there were pizzerias all over town and they seemed very popular. But I didn't go all that distance to eat pizza, for God's sake, I eat that at home.... I did eat at McDonald's one night, just to say I'd eaten at the Luxembourg McDonald's. The food was pretty much like the US equivalent, but the service was infinitely better - when did a McDonald's counterhop ever wish you "Bon appetit"? - and they had sidewalk tables.)

So it was sandwiches, which was less of a hardship than it might seem, because one thing they do well in Luxembourg is the sandwich. There were several sandwich shops downtown which turned out truly splendid creations, with ham and cheese and lettuce and hard-boiled eggs and just about anything else you wanted; for that matter the railroad station café sold excellent prefabricated sandwiches at all hours and the price wasn't too bad.

Tonight I also had several cans of German beer that I'd brought back, so all in all I was well fed. (If you're wondering, though: the little bottle on the table contains a local potation known as eau-de-vie, which I sampled and cannot recommend, though its potency is definitely impressive.)

And so to bed; tomorrow I would see more of this curious city -

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