A Mermaid’s Tale

Fall in Germany often means overcast, cool, and drizzly days. Accustomed to Colorado’s dry and typically warm climate, I have a tendency to feel chilled, causing my dad to make fun of me, calling me mollycoddled. Despite his potential disapprobation, I give in to the desire to get thoroughly warm, and, during a particularly inhospitable weather spell, when the barometer needle steadily drops, plan to spend a day at a spa which I longingly remember from a visit at least a decade ago. Swimming and soaking pools, steam and mud baths, dry and wet saunas, reclining chairs, and soft, new age music sound like the perfect remedy.

Following a train ride and a walk through the fog, I arrive at my destination, prepared for a day of pampering and relaxation. I paddle in the central pool for only a few brief minutes when one of the employees walks up to get my attention. Imagine my surprise when I find out that clothes are not merely optional, but completely forbidden. Before his arrival I noticed fellow bathers in the nude, but never did the thought cross my mind that I was breaking not simply a rule of the establishment, but a hallowed, immutable law. I don’t recall seeing any signs banning apparel, neither when I looked up the business hours on line, nor when I checked in at the front desk. But here I am, an outlaw. No “textiles” allowed, “no textiles” repeats the assistant, like a mantra. He helpfully points out my bathing suit is not only not wanted, either it has to go, or I do.

I do. Regretfully, I climb out of the pool, wrap my towel around me, and make my way back to the dressing room, wondering about myself. I don’t recall any mention of Puritans in my family tree but, somehow, during my long residence in the United States, its underlying puritan current must have rubbed off, or been absorbed through the water, or the air.

By the time I shower and dry my hair, my slight consternation is gone, and I am chuckling. I also decide that this anecdote is too humorous not to share, resulting in the confessions of a wannabe, verklemmt mermaid who did not feel comfortable in her own skin.


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Paris, but not Quite

It is difficult to resist the siren song of Paris when I am so close to its attractions. I find myself with a three hour layover between my arrival from Auxerre, and my departure for Germany. Traveling on the Metro to the Gare de L’Est entails two changes, and already I begin to feel immersed in France’s capital, at least in its subterranean realm. Nonetheless, I opt not to store my suitcase at the East Train Station and hurry through one of my favorite cities for a few brief hours. I content myself instead with observing fellow travelers and merchants, alongside doves and sparrows which seem to materialize in every place where humans consume food. On a more somber note, I don’t recall heavily armed police carrying machine guns here before, a reminder of our new, sad reality.

Window at the Gare de L’Est

I reminisce about previous voyages to this metropolis on the Seine River. Whenever I am here, I feel the need to visit the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Sacré Coeur, but during my most recent trip a year and a half ago I also retraced some of the footsteps of Gertrude Stein, and the artistic circle that gathered at her Paris Salon in the early twentieth century. My initial curiosity had been kindled by a highly entertaining Woody Allen comedy, “Midnight in Paris”, and fanned by “The Paris Wife”, by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage.

Gertrude, an American expatriate, was unconventional, to say the least. Independent, lesbian, progressive, modernist are only a few of her epithets. An avid art collector, she recognized the potential of diverse painters before they found fame, for example of Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Pablo Picasso and Dali, too, frequented her social circle. She assembled around her future literary greats as well, among them Ernest Hemingway whom she mentored in his formative years, even though they later had a falling out. He represents the prototypical “American in Paris” whose life was forever altered by the cultural mecca Paris has always been. Some of his experiences are immortalized in his first novel, “The Sun also Rises.”


Hemingway’s apartment in Paris, 74, Rue du Cardinal Lemoine

Seeing the sites of these seminal happenings was inspiring. Hemingway’s apartment was on the same street as James Joyce’s, the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine which likely facilitated their legendary drinking sprees.


Commemorative plaque on Hemingway’s erstwhile home in Paris

Sylvia Beach, another American expatriate and owner of the original bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” published Joyce’s “Ulysses” at great financial and professional risk because no publisher was willing to touch his manuscript. Unfortunately, all these dwellings are in private hands, affording the present-day visitor only external glances. One exception is the successor to Beach’s venerable book shop. Though situated in a new location on the left bank of the Seine, it still invites the potential reader or writer to linger and interact with kindred spirits.

Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare and Company

Gertrude Stein harbored her own literary aspirations and published essays, poems, novels and plays, mostly written in experimental styles. In the works I tackled, I found her stream-of-consciousness technique challenging, and threw up my arms in frustration more than once. Because of Gertrude’s presupposition that her long-term partner would never write her own life story, she composed “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” in Alice’s stead. Neither Gertrude who died in 1946, nor Alice who survived her by 21 years returned to America, but chose to be buried at the city’s largest cemetery, Père Lachaise, in the company of many with whom they had mingled in life.


Commemorative plaque on the former home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

As my train gathers speeds through the suburbs, I am slightly wistful, can relate to the desire of never wanting to leave this fabled locale. Even so: Au revoir, Paris. Au revoir, la France . I hope to return some other time.

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Merci Mes Amis

Whenever my travels take me back to Germany, a journey to France is an added bonus, in particular a journey to a hamlet near Auxerre, in Burgundy. It harbors the residence of Heike, my best friend since high school days, her husband, Pascal, and their son. Their two daughters have already fledged the nest.

The Enchanted Garden

The Enchanted Garden

A cozy nest indeed. Their remodeled farm house and barn sit on a generous plot of land, amid a grassy expanse surrounded by and dotted with diverse deciduous trees and decorative plants, and separated from the neighborhood by tall hedges. Several weeks into fall the tree crowns are braided with rusty streaks yet the canopy continues to conceal a variety of chattering birds more vocal than I expect so late in the season.


Garden Art

Heike’s numerous flowers are fading, but a few late bloomers continue to color the landscape. After cool nights we awaken to frost in the morning. Luckily, the logs in the fireplace warm our hands and hearts.

Former stable, remodeled into a vacation cottage, available for rent

Former stable, remodeled into a vacation cottage, available for rent

Following a fortifying breakfast Heike and I set out with their dog, Loupo. His name connotes his wolfish genealogy (le loup means wolf in French) and, phonetically, fits his amusingly loopy character. A French Beauceron, theoretically a herding breed, he is less of a herder than a hunter who, in his second year of life, still struts with puppy power and keeps reminding us not only of his need of, but also his right to attention.



On our walks we pass the nearby dairy which supplies Heike’s family with raw milk, stroll along pastures with grazing cows, horses, and an occasional assembly of deer, and wind in and out of parcels of forest interspersed with fields of feed corn, while we watch layers of mist dissipate slowly in the rising sun.


Morning Glory

Heike has known and supported me through many stages of life and remains my most cherished friend. We fell in love with and married our respective husbands at about the same period. In her case, Eros led her to France, me to the United States, making our reunions sadly rare, but all the more precious. My visits usually fly by. Many days I tag along with Heike during her activities, many horse-related. It is a special treat, and a revival of my adolescent horse obsession when we get to ride out together, she on her mare, I on a borrowed mount.


Curious ponies

An excursion to Auxerre is likewise part of the program. The town which predates the Roman conquest of Gaul hovers above the picturesque valley of the Yonne River. Besides its wines, it is known for the white limestone Gothic Cathedral St. Étienne and former Benedictine abbey St. Germain whose crypt contains the oldest known frescoes in France from the ninth century, even though they were not detected until 1927.


Cathedral St. Étienne, Auxerre

I also savor Heike’s culinary creations, with copious amounts of baguette and cheese, and benefit from Pascal’s impeccable taste in wine. Often I simply take in the serene setting of their home, or soak up the sun in the garden like their cat, Esso. I always leave in a state of peace and equanimity, nourished in body and soul.


Esso, waiting for the sun to melt the frost on the grass

Heike and Pascal, thank you and your children for always welcoming me/us with open arms. After many years of this unidirectional traffic, it is high time you made a trip to Colorado. I only hope we can repay your kindness and hospitality.

Á bientôt!

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Home Again

Suffering from jet lag, my first night back in Germany is little restful. My early afternoon arrival facilitates my staying up until ten in the evening, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, I rest in the arms of Morpheus (apologies to my husband). When I first open my eyes the red, glowing numbers on the digital clock read two, but I manage to go back to sleep until I hear uncommon, yet familiar music — church bells pealing. Three crystalline notes float across the roofs of houses filled with sleepers. Lying awake, additional sounds travel through the open window. My father’s home is only two blocks away from the railroad station and tracks, with public transportation conveniently reachable in five minutes on foot, but in the darkness, the rattling of freight trains reaches my ears. I next count four, then five clangs of the bell, and because my tossing from right to left to prone to supine has not resulted in the desired effect, I finally get up.

By six I pull the door silently behind me, trying not to wake anybody. I long to exercise my legs, still tense from the long flight, and set out for a walk. In Colorado, dawn arrived at about this time, but at this latitude I find myself in the company of Orion, the Big Dipper, and a sliver of the waning moon. As the horizon slowly transitions from black to grey to blue, I am strolling among mowed wheat fields covered in stubble, whence emerges the rustling of mice. I am not alone in paying attention to the rodents, and buzzards and sparrow hawks are poised to break their fast. I stride past apple and walnut trees, their branches laden.


In Colorado, around 9,000 feet, I took my leave from aspen already ablaze in their autumn glory. Here, 300 feet above sea level, the leaves of the deciduous trees are only beginning to turn, but already they bear edible gifts. To my delight, my dad greeted me with my favorite homemade plum cake yesterday.

Suddenly the air resounds with shots, but not the kind that worry me. It is the season of the grape harvest, and the noise attempts to keep hordes of hungry starlings and crows away from the luscious, juicy fruits. The pervasive aroma of fermenting grapes hangs over the town and vineyards, bringing back memories, deeply lodged in my olfactory gyri.


I grew up in Rhine Hesse in southwest Germany, a major agricultural region with innumerable hills draped in grape vines. All summer long, wine festivals in small towns offer the opportunity to sample different vintages, and each September and October, the new crop is harvested, an activity chiefly mechanized today. It used to be entirely manual, and as a schoolgirl I participated many a year in order to shore up my allowance. Fall also comes with a culinary specialty, the still aging, so-called new wine served with “zwiebelkuchen”, a type of onion quiche, the German savory equivalent of pumpkin pie.


The rising sun warms the earth, disperses the nocturnal vapors, and tints the clouds pink and orange. My first morning back in my childhood home is magical: prolonged, understated, and filled with the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of the days when I was surrounded by them daily, without appreciating them as much as I do nowadays.

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Above the Clouds

I love to fly. Love the anticipation of a new destination, the airplane’s powerful acceleration and seemingly effortless lift-off, the way terra firma recedes in the distance until I have the sensation of floating high in the sky with a limitless lookout before me. The sheer immensity of the firmament and vastness of the land put human-made structures and concerns into perspective.

After a hiatus of sixteen months, my airborne journey from Denver to Frankfurt, Germany via Seattle only a few days ago confirms my fondness for taking wing. After our departure round, square, and rectangular fields on the prairie appear like pieces of a whimsical puzzle.


Roads travel straight, arc, or fork into many prongs, branch into many directions, but sometimes simply stop, a metaphor for life where not all turns lead directly to our goals, and we might have to backtrack. The plains give way to the Rocky Mountains which delight with stony labyrinths and velveteen flanks, sprinkled with colorful reminders of autumn. Once we touch down in Seattle, Mount Rainier looms on the horizon like a mirage.


Sunset on America’s West Coast is followed some short hours later by sunrise, when Greenland’s glaciers are tenderly touched by Aurora’s early morning caresses.


Clouds of varying shape and thickness drift in and out, conceal and reveal the marvels of our earth and our oceans, our peaks and valleys, 30,000 feet below, the only known world in our immense universe which affords life.

Did I mention that I love to fly?

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