14 November 1999

We took the train from Vienna to Dresden.

On the train from Vienna to Dresden, we were in a non-smoking compartment which was VERY smokey -- and the smoke was coming from the ventilation system!!! After exploring a bit I discovered that the American kid in the compartment next to us (with the curtains closed and the door locked) was chain smoking. We were VERY surprised when the Czech conductor came around collecting tickets and made the guy pay a large fine!! After that, our air was fine!!!

It was quite interesting travelling through the Czech republic, but after we passed Prauge it was dark... so we arrived in a place at night, but we had someone meeting us... so it was ok. Kind of. We WERE a bit nervous about the family we would be staying with. Annett is the pen pal of a strange friend of Cheryln's. We were told ahead of time that they REALLY like Americans. Didn't really know what to expect!

She met us at the train station and was very nice, we all jumped into her car (a Ford) and headed out of town towards her village. She was very apologetic that her car was so old and so small... and she stopped for dinner for us. At McDonalds!!! It was a bit upsetting, but, we figured, part of the experience -- it's the first time I have eaten there in about 15 years. It was strange, sitting in the former East Germany in a McDonalds! I didn't know that they had veggie burgers though! We were in the car for a LONG time, driving through dark mountain roads... it turned out to take 'only' 1.5 hours because it was Sunday evening.

Annett and her family live in a village called Bärenstein which is up in the mountains outside of Dresden and very very near the Czech border. I should mention that Baerenstein 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 arrived in the dark, of course, so we did not see the village. The house was beautiful and very large. We were shown the guest room on the third floor with MANY apologies about how small the house was and how terrible the beautiful old wood furnishings were.

The family had the whole week planned out for us, every second... One of the reasons we had come was to try to see the once every 33 years Leonid meteor storm that I had been looking forward to for 27 years (it's on my birthday and has long been a fascination for me!) They didn't quite understand why we wanted to do this, and insisted on calling the Planetarium several times to confirm something was actually happening.

We told them we were eager to see their village and spend some time in the mountains and also see Dresden. They were adamant that their village was horrible, and we should spend our week at museums in Dresden. They would, they offered, drive us every day. We had passed a train station about a 10 minute walk from their house and when we asked about the train they scoffed! "It takes too long!!!", "NO ONE uses it!", "But we have a car! We will drive you!!! it only takes 45 minutes!"

We had to get up at 4:45 the next morning so that we could drive to Dresden and Annett could make her 8am class. We still didn't get to see the house or village in the daylight. The 45 minutes was actually about 2hrs & 10 minutes. It was about 0 degrees C (32 F) and there was a little snow in Bärenstein, but none in Dresden.

We actually had a very nice day in Dresden, met Annet in the afternoon and spent some time with her and afterwards we drove 2 hours back to Bärenstein. They prepared dinner for us, but they didn't eat. We had white bread and american cheese, fish sticks and instant potatoes. I am NOT complaining, it was wonderful to be fed and they were very very nice people who were desperate to please; but it was VERY weird... The whole family had this attitude that the USA was perfect and wonderful and anything else was terrible.

They were in the process of replacing all of their furnishings and fittings with cheap plastic american ones, and were ashamed that they had not completed the task. They felt shame because their car wasn't huge and new. Their biggest pride was that they were the second people in the village with a sattilite dish! It was all about material things -- and status oriented, not quality. It was the most bizarre thing! The parents didn't speak English at all, but if we tried to speak a little German we were scolded harshly (or laughed at). German bad. English good. This was literally a little cult of the 1950's america. They were trying VERY hard to BE 1950s america... Cheryln called them the warped Cleavers! It was frightening and rather upsetting.

That evening we had a very strange and long argument about what we would do the next day. We couldn't bear to get up at 4:45 again, just to spend 2 hours in the car. We had not seen the village in the daylight yet (and their plans for the next 3 days all involved leaving before dawn and returning after dark). It was like they were trying to hide the place from us. We desperately wanted to see the village. They were APPALLED that we wanted to take the train -- "NO ONE takes the train! It's expensive, it's difficult, it takes too long, we have a car!" The train to them, was anti-american, it was German and therefore bad. They agreed to let us take the train, but they would NOT allow us to walk the 10 minutes to the station. They MUST drive us! The family was very nice, but the whole thing had left us very stressed out.

So they drove us to the train and waited with us until it arrived and put us on the train. The train ride down out of the mountains was stunningly gorgeous, there were a dozen beautiful villages, several castles, a gorgeous river all the way down and wonderful forest! We were in Dresden in less than an hour. It was easy, quick and very cheap, about $9 for a round trip for both of us and that INCLUDED free transit in Dresden all day! We also rode the train back, they really didn't understand this, in the afternoon. The mother met us at the station at around 3pm! We actually got to see the village and the house for the first time!!!

The village is BEAUTIFUL and the house was lovely. We even managed to get a tour. The house is quite large, with a couple of extra buildings and set in the side of a hill looking across the valley. There is a large terraced garden in the back yard and a path through the small woods that leads to a meadow on the side of the hill. It was very nice. (And the meadow would be perfect for watching the meteors!) The father keeps rabbits and has some HUGE ones, they are european prize winners, and also food. In East German times they also sold the firs, but now they throw them away.

Another bizarre June Cleaver dinner; again none of the family ate, only us, being served. We were very uncomfortable... and they refused to let us help clean up or anything.

That night we went ice skating in the nearby village with Annett and some of her friends... it was a lot of fun! I have not skated in years and never inside. Of course I had to have hockey skates, which I have not used, but I got used to them pretty quickly... Cheryln had never skated and took a bit of work, but she was doing pretty well by the end. I had fun, but I took one big spill (right in front of everyone) and earned a giant bruise on my elbow.

A funny thing happened... Cheryln acquired a fan club of 11 year old boys... they followed her around at a distance for some time. Finally they approached us and said hi. We said Hello back and they all laughed and skated away. It seems that American visitors are VERY rare in this part of Germany and they had NEVER met an English speaker before. They had been learning English, but had never spoken to a native speaker. One skated along in front of us for a few minutes and we had a short conversation... he loved it!

We were very tired and went to bed afterwards, we DID look out the Northeast facing window at around 2am to see if there were any meteors, it was clear, but we saw nothing... this was only the day before. The next morning I was suffering from a migraine, the stress of the place was getting to me. We had a WONDERFUL room, and the people were very nice, but we didn't have time to relax and it was just so weird!

November 17 is a holiday in Saxony so Annett was our tour guide this day. We left late... I think they were frustrated that we weren't ready earlier, but we were never told a time to leave, it was very confusing.

First we drove to the Czech Republic to buy Gasoline. It is about 20 minute drive away and if the exchange rate is good they can save a few DM on a tank of gas... but they HATE the Czechs! Man they constantly talk terrible about them! We have found in general that in Eastern Europe, people really hate the country next to them, and everything we have been told about "THOSE PEOPLE" has been untrue... the animosity is amazing, nothing like the little grudges in western europe.

Annett drove us to a village about 1.5 hours away. She got lost, Seiffen and we got to see some wonderful scenery. Seiffen is a very very touristy village which makes wooden toys. It was crammed with people, but because it was a holiday the food stands were not opened. I had wanted potato pancakes! They used to be amining town, but saw the writing on the wall about 200 years ago and changed industries before the mine dried up.

We went to the museum that showed the history of the toymaking in the village and many of the wooden toys... it was pretty cool. The stereotype nutcracker of the ballet is from there... they also make these little animals by making a donut in the shape of the animal outline and cutting slices out! The museum was modern and well done! After a much needed bite (no food all day) to eat (Annett NEVER eats!) which in Germany is never short, we headed to the Village Museum, an outdoor recreated village with houses from all over the area. It was gorgeous, especially with the light dusting of snow that had fallen the night before. We got to see someone making those animal donuts!

Back at home we sat in her room and watched CNN. I had always known that they were pretty shallow, but this was amazing to watch... they did a little bit about the Leonids, but almost everything they said was wrong!! We went to bed fairly early, eagerly anticipating the meteor storm!

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 mein 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 shops (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.

We had another beautiful train ride into Dresden, and at the end of the day we met Annet and all 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 and was the place where the family's private skilift was before unification.

The house her father was born in was washed away when the dam from the mine broke! 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 overtly.

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.

On Sunday morning we spent quite a while packing carefully. Our packs had gotten rather large, what with birthday, and winter and lots of maps! We had bought a bottle of special Hungarian wine in Budapest to give to Annet's family, but they were rather upset by our other gifts and we felt like it would not be well recieved -- so we were still carrying it. Our friend Manfred in Germany really wanted some Tokji wine so we figured we would take it to him.

Annet drove us in to Dresden and out to a palace called the Hunting Lodge. It was this enormous, fancy palace on a small island in a synthetic lake. It was stunningly gorgeous with the snow all around and the light snow falling, however Annet was quite bummed because the lake had been drained. Annet wanted to give us a tour of the fancy parlours, but they would only allow people in when on a special tour, so she was even more bummed. We walked around behind the palace to the huge gardens, which were really nice in the snow. Unlike many palace gardens, only a small part of the gardens were grassy areas and the vast majority was a wooded area with beautiful small alder or birch- like trees which were covered with snow and ice. It was absolutely stunning. I really wanted to spend a lot of time there, but we needed to move on. Annet took us to a cafe where we got a late lunch and ice cream and we tried very hard to pay for her but she refused to let us pay at all. She paid for us.

Annet was a bit upset about us staying in a hostel -- I think she and her family found it a little insulting. It made a lot of sense -- the hostel was 5 minutes from the train station and we could sleep until 8 and catch our train instead of having to get up a 4:45 -- AND Annet could sleep at her apartment in the city instead of having to get up at 4:45. But it was weird anyway. When we gave her directions to the hostel (we had walked by it earlier in the week) she said, oh, by the cool World Trade Center mall!? And we said that we didn't see a mall, but it might have been. She couldn't believe that we didn't spend time at the mall!

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000

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