Date: 18 November 1999
Subject: Bärenstein
I should mention that Bärenstein is actually spelled with an umlaut over the a, but when it is impossible to put in the umlaut in, the Germans add an e after the vowel. I think the name is more aesthetically pleasing with the umlaut.

We didn't sleep very late the morning after the meteor shower. We awoke around 9:30. We had insisted that we would really like to see the village, and they had finally agreed. This was our day to do so. It was also meine geburtstag... my birthday. Cheryln gave me a wonderful card! Cheryln and meteors and snow on my birthday -- how very nice!

We were given lunch soon after breakfast (once again, none of them ever ate!) The Grandmother had cooked for us this time and we had homemade potato pancakes with pumpkin and pumpkin schnitzel (fried pumpkin)!!! And hot chocolate too! It was fantastic!! It made me happy on my birthday.

We were FORBIDDEN to walk the 4 or 5 km to the next town (we might get lost and the snow was a meter deep and it was cold and it was cold and it was cold) but we had a wonderful time exploring their 'awful' village, castle and all! There was a very pleasant town square with several markets (we bought milk and veggies). The castle, more of a Schloss than a Burg, that is, more of a palace than a fortress, hung right on the edge of a giant cliff in the woods. We wandered around beneath it. It was quite nice, but it appeared to be a private residence and we couldn't find a way inside the walls. There were cool diagonal windows on one of the towers, I assume that was a stairway!

That evening Annett had two huge boxes of chocolate for my birthday sitting at the dinner table. It was very very nice of her. One of them was a giant 'surprise egg' which is made of chocolate and inside is a toy. The toy was in a big blue plastic capsule, which was my favorite part! The toy turned out to be a PENGUIN POWER wool cap which, since I have a tiny head, fit me very well. Annett was disappointed that I hadn't gotten a cheap plastic toy.

Dinner was hot spicy pumpkin soup! YUM! The Grandmother made it. The mother was ranting about how the father would never eat soup. They all talked about how they thought pumpkin was only good for feeding pigs and not real food and then we were told that the father would NEVER eat anything the Grandmother cooked. When the father arrived at the table (He would get home at 2pm, but would work on house repairs every other waking second) he gobbled up a couple of bowls of soup. The mother was shocked! So were we. But Annet and the mother did not eat.

Our plan for the next day was to walk a few short kilometers to Altenberg at the top of the mountain and catch the train back. This DID NOT go over well, but finally, after a LONG argument, we got them to agree that we would walk to Altenberg and take the train to Dresden and meet Annett in the afternoon after she was finished with work. (It was only because she had to work all week that we had any freedom to do our own things at all!!) In the morning we had a note!

"It is -8, too cold to walk. Mother will drive you to the station here are 10 am. Go back to sleep."

We were not very happy about this... at breakfast we had a long, strange multi-lingual argument about walking and finally agreed not to walk to Altenberg, only to the Bärenstein train station. Of course we set out up the hill to Altenberg -- it was so warm we had to take off our coats! The walk was fantastic, although very easy and too short. The fields and forest were covered with about 2 cm of snow and the views were stunning. The route was very well marked and entirely on roads. Much of it paralleled the train tracks and several times we got to see the trains going through the snowy forest. It was really cool. We had a fantastic time... it took about an hour, so we stopped for a picnic lunch on the snow just before the village. We explored the little skiing/mining village a bit, bought a couple of delicious cookies and hopped on the train. The kids from the skating rink were there, but they didn't speak to us... don't know if they were scared, didn't recognize us or were just otherwise occupied hanging from the rafters.

Another beautiful train ride into Dresden, this time a bit more crowded, and once in town we went to a cool neighborhood that Annett's friend Claudia had told us about. It is called the Neustadt, but it is several hundred years old. It is kind of the trendy neighborhood, like Capitol Hill in Seattle. But it was the first place we saw that looked REAL. It was clearly a place where real people lived and worked and played. It was the only place in Dresden that wasn't horribly tacky and strange because of the West conquers East architecture. It was a neighborhood which had GROWN and changed instead of being plopped down in the middle of something else. We had a good time running around there and were sorry that we only had an hour or two. I would've liked to spend a lot more time there. But sill, eastern Germany is weird. People were happy that we spoke a little German, but when they heard our English and saw we were American, they were extremely excited, often giving us free things and such!

Back in downtown we went through the old market square where they were setting up a huge xmas market -- it looked very nice, with a giant 'piramid' in the center. The piramids are the traditional Christmas decoration of the area (and one of the primary products of the town of Seiffen that we went to!). They are these conical (christmas tree) shaped wooden pieces with a big fan blade on top attached to several wooden disks with scenes of animals or trees or what have you on them. There are candleholders around the edges and when the candles are lit, the heat turns the fanblade, causing the scenes to rotate. They're really neat and you see them in a variety of shapes from less than one inch high to person sized and the one in the square was about three stories high!! Unfortunately the market was smaller than in previous years because a western German department store had built a huge new modern building right in the middle of the old market square!!! YUK!

And of course we went back to the food co-op! On the way to the food co-op I saw a bank called the Hansiatic bank -- isn't that just the perfect name for a bank! I was surprised I had not seen it before! At 3pm we met Annett and went Neustadt to the department store to do email. Annett had never used email, and we had promised her we would get her set up, so Cheryln patiently taught her how to use the system and how email worked.

Then we piled into the car for the long drive back to her parents' house where there was a big birthday cake waiting for me! (The mother had thought that my birthday was Friday!) This was a very sweet cheesecake. It was wonderful, but we needed some real food first, and they had trouble understanding that, but they gave us some soup. Annett's dinner was three pieces of cheesecake.

Saturday morning we took it easy and then in the afternoon Annett took us to Altenberg to the mine museum. The tour guide was a very nice guy and he was so amazed to have Americans around that he closed the ticketbooth and gave us a long personal tour of all the (still operational) machinery with Annett translating. The ore in the mine had only 0.03% tin, and we saw the ways that they extracted that through the centuries -- none were very pleasant, ranging from child labor to horrendous pollution. And the tourguide gave us a piece of rock from the mine that was part yellow topaz, part tin and part quartz. He said it is growing in value since the mine closed!

After that we went on an offical tour of the mine shafts, also with Annett translating. It was fascinating. This was a tin mine that had been used for 500 years! (Although 50% of the tin taken from it was taken in the years 1971-86!). In the 17th century during a small earthquake the mines all collapsed and left a giant crater or hole in the center of the town of Altenberg which is called the Pinge (pinj-a). This crater has continued to grow ever since and is now huge, 3 km across! It is an odd thing, to me it seems like such a terrible thing, this scar, but they are proud of it. They sell postcards and have large 3D maps. When the 2 Germanys were unified the mine was privitized and the new owners fired most of the workers causing a serious depression in the town -- many people emigrated; now the town is trying to become a skiing destination. The coolest thing was that deep in the mine shaft there were big rings of green (alge) around the lights. No life anywhere except where the lights shined! The translating was hard work and Annett did a very, very good job!

Then Annett drove us around the area, did I mention that she is a very, very scary driver!?! She drove us past her grandparents' houses. The house her father was born in was washed away when the dam from the mine broke, as was the place where the family's private skilift was before unification. When we returned home her friend Claudia came over and the three of us chatted. Annett didn't really take part -- again, it was strange. She was really exhausted from getting up at 4:45 every day, but insisted she was not tired. And she was afraid that we would say something bad about the USA so she didn't want to be part of the convesation. When someone said something even a little bad about the USA she would sit and sulk.

Annett's friend Claudia was very cool. We enjoyed talking with her and I think we got a bit more of a realistic view of East Germans than from only Annett. She was extremely facinated with USA, but not quite to the -nothing else exists- extent of Annett.

It was a bit of a relief that we were leaving the next day. The family was wonderful to us and did so much for us -- we actually liked them and the town was cute and the house was very comfortable. They just tried to do too much to take care of us, and part of the problem was that we are very used to doing our own thing. Despite trying so hard to show us how American they were, they really gave us a lot, but the whole situation was very, very strange and more than a little stressful.

PRESENT PHYSICAL LOCATION: Leonardo & Carmela Cannizzaro's house
                 Castelvetrano, Sicily, Italy


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