Monday, 24 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part V

In all seriousness, I have found that people are extremely pleasant and helpful. Nearly everyone speaks amazingly good English—much better than I speak my second language, which I studied for 10 years and used when visiting two separate countries. As soon as they notice us conferring in English, they switch languages. When they do not speak English, they are quite patient as we struggle through German pronunciations or use hand gestures to convey ideas. While shopping at Koenig’s Teehaus, I use signs to indicate that I need a box in which to pack the teapot I am purchasing, and the owner finds me one so I can safely get the pot back home. Although she appears to prefer cash, she agrees to take my credit card, which involves a long trip to a back room where the machine is plugged in—and she does not make a single scowl or complaint. I attempt to buy a scarf at Landhäuser, a store with no credit card machine at all. When I count out my Euros, I find that I am 40 cents short. Before I can ask directions to the nearest ATM (“geldoautomat”), the store owner tells me that that is close enough, and then he refuses to take the extra money that I find hidden in a pocket a moment later. In a sense, though I wish I had a larger German vocabulary, I am glad I do not have to have too many tortured conversations in this language, because I think it would take forever: Many German words are composites of other words, and are therefore amazingly long. We jokingly decide that perhaps Germans are so efficient because they need a way to make up for the amount of time it takes to convey ideas with such exceedingly long phrases. Then again, this style of language improves your chances of successful translation, because knowledge of one bit of the word often allows you to work out the meaning of the remainder. One other funny thing about the language is the way it sounds coming out of the mouths of scolding mothers. As nearly all the Americans on the trip remark, German is a great language for scolding; the combination of the harshness of the words and the patterns of pitch and volume leave you feeling chastised even if you are only in the vicinity of someone else who is being yelled at.

While visiting Sparrenberg Castle, my husband and I are chatted up by the man who sells us drinks on the patio:
(Post-drinks picture on the patio at Sparrenberg Castle)

When my husband explains that he is British and I am American, the vendor gets very excited and says that he has been to the US—to, of all places, my home state of Ohio. It turns out that he was once in the German navy, and took a trip down the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes. What are the chances? He appeared quite excited by meeting us, and very fondly remembered seeing Niagara Falls several decades ago. It seems odd to have this encounter in the middle of a moderately-sized foreign town that I’d not even heard of just a few months ago. It seems especially odd to meet someone who not only visited my home country, but visited the one state, out of 50 possibilities, where I was born. I find myself with a strange glowing feeling for the rest of the day, knowing that someone else here has a picture of Ohio in his head. I am not sure why this should particularly matter to me—as much as I like Ohio, and the US in general, I am not all that patriotic and I don’t sit around feeling homesick; I suppose it is the general experience of finding an unexpected connection with someone, rather than the specifics of that connection.

I have another “connection” at the castle while we are taking a walk around the grounds. As I pose for a picture in front of the castle walls, we fall silent for a moment and I notice the sound of begging chicks coming from a nearby tree. A large nest box is attached to the trunk and a pair of blue tits have made the cavity their home:
Having studied cavity-nesters for 6 ½ years while getting my graduate degrees, I do have a bit of a soft spot for these birds. Additionally, this is the first summer that I am not out checking nest boxes and measuring babies, so I have a bit of a nostalgic moment, listening to the chorus of hungry voices and thinking about the little lives that are developing so close to all those tourists even though few people probably realize it.

Otherwise, the castle is not exactly all that exciting, although it is interesting to see a type of structure that you don’t encounter every day, especially not in the US. It is important to point out that this is the type of castle that served as a lookout and fortress, not a luxurious home for pampered royalty. It was originally built in the 13th century by the counts of Ravensberg, as a place to take shelter in case of an attack. In the 14th century it was given some updates so it could serve more properly as a fortress. Its current condition is the result of restorations during the 17th-19th centuries, which is why it looks a bit more romantic and movie-like than some of the other, more practical, castles I have visited from this era. Below the castle are, apparently, many catacombs and paths that can be visited for a small fee (except for one small area that is inhabited by bats), but it is a bit cold and muddy and we do not venture in. One other thing they might need to eventually dig up is the trees growing out of cracks in the walls:
(I'm no mason, but I'm guessing this is not good for the stability of the stonework.)

Parts of the castle grounds are currently being dug up, and it appears as though they are uncovering additional stone structures that had lain buried for quite a while. This is just my guess, however, since all the signs are in German. Another thing I would know, if I could read German, is that tourists can ascend the tower in order to get a good view of the town and its environs. However, the castle walls offer pretty good views, and I'm not sure how drastically different the extra 120 feet would make the perspective. From my place on the patio, at I get a good look at the tower from the outside, and watch the waving flag on top as it frequently changes position in all this chilly, swirly wind:
(Sparrenberg Tower, in a rare moment of sunshine. We never did figure out whom the statue portrays. It is not the famous "linenmaker" statue that is supposed to be one of the most important tourist attractions in Bielefeld--we never located it.)

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