Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Old Watering Holes - Postcards from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

A great deal has changed in the 43 years since I was a student in Freiburg.  I visited a few times in the early years after I returned home to the States, but now it has been almost 30 years since my last visit.  I should not have been surprised that things appear different; a lot has happened in Germany since I lived there.  There is only one Germany now, something I could never have imagined in the early 1970s.  And I have also changed.  Gone is that strapping youth on the cusp of adulthood who moved about in a carefree world.  In his place is a hobbled 64 year old man wandering among today’s students thinking that their parents were mere children when he last wandered these still familiar streets and pathways. 

So when I returned to Freiburg I scouted out some of my old haunts, beginning with several local pubs to which I and some of my fellow students retreated for a couple of beers and debates after long days in the classroom or the library.  One of our favorites, the Gasthof “Die Sonne,” not far from where I lived at one time in the Littenweiler section of the city, still looked the same . . . still painted an off yellow.  Upon closer inspection, however, I noted that it was now called Ouzeria and served Greek dishes and other Mediterranean specialties.  Disappointed, I walked down the street to another favorite, the Gasthof “Zur Goldenen Krone.”  Once again, from the outside it looked much as I remembered it yet it was now “La Crona” and specialized in Italian cuisine.  The menu looked inviting, but I was still in search of some memory from the past.  Finally, I drifted to another local gathering place . . . the “Gaststätte Lindenmatte.”  It, too, looked the same as I remembered it and the sign outside still bore that familiar sobriquet.  I stepped inside and the interior had not changed noticeably in all those years.   I looked at the menu posted by the entrance.  It was now an Afghani restaurant and had been for the past 20 years.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Afghani food, but that is not what I had come in search of.  The Lindenmatte, in the old days, was well-known for its frittierte Bratkartoffeln mit Knoblauchsoße [fried potatoes with garlic sauce], and I was happy to see that it and a few other local dishes remained on the menu.  I retired to the beer garden outside where I ordered that old specialty along with a bowl of Ash, a traditional Afghani soup with noodles, yogurt, kidney beans, chickpeas, ground beef, seasoned with dill, turmeric, and garnished with mint leaves. The best of both worlds.

The next day I caught the tram at the Littenweiler terminal and ticked off each stop from memory as I headed along Hansjakobstrasse into the city.  Römerhof, named for another Gasthof I frequented from time to time when heading home from the gym.  It is now an international school.  Then came the tram stops at Hasemannstrasse and Emil-Gött-Strasse, followed by the former Stadthalle and Messplatz stations (now renamed for the adjacent Musikhochschule and Alt-Messplatz).  This area is almost totally unrecognizable although I was happy to see the old Gasthof Schiff where I spent numerous evenings on my way back to Littenweiler.  Originally built in 1777, it looked as I remembered it on the outside, but the interior has been completely remodeled into what can only be called a fern bar and jazz club.  Another disappointment, although it still serves local fare at greatly inflated prices.  It is no longer the neighborhood Kneipe I recalled from the old days.

Back on the tram I passed the station near the Brauerei Ganter which still brews my favorite local beer, finally arriving at Schwabentor and Oberlinden, in the Altstadt, which was my home when I first arrived in Freiburg.  I had a small room in the Haus der blauen Lilie, in the Salzstrasse.  When I moved in it reminded me a great deal of the room portrayed in Carl Spitzweg’s very famous Biedermeier painting, “Der Arme Poet.”  The building still looks the same.  It was originally constructed circa 1460 although I swear the bathroom down the hall was older than that!

I hoped that perhaps the nearby watering holes I frequented those many years ago would look the way I remembered them.  There were a number of places situated around the nearby Marktplatz and its imposing 800 year old Minster, often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world.  Wandering the market I noted again how much the Germans seem to have acquired tastes for cuisines other than their own.  I remember the Minster surrounded by little wagons offering assorted grilled sausages served with onions and doused with spicy mustard.  I found only one where I could still order a “rote Lange” served with a hard roll and wrapped in waxed paper.  Others had been replaced with the ubiquitous Turkish döner kebab stands found throughout Germany.  I opted for my old favorite which I ate as I walked around the market and through the familiar passageways in my old city neighborhood.  And there it was!  Another of my favorite watering holes.

Gasthof zum Deutschen Haus, in the Schusterstrasse, dates from around the same time as my former residence in the Salzstrasse two blocks away.  It looked just as I remembered it.  Surely a local with such a name would remain authentic to its Germanic roots, and so I decided to go in and wash my lunch down with some local beer.  Is it possible it had not changed in 43 years?  I was pleasantly surprised as I entered this favorite watering hole.  I had stepped into the past I was in search of.  If there were changes, they were not perceptible to the naked eye.  The wooden tables and chairs; the framed photographs, maps and etchings on the wall; the polished wooden bar in the back, and the Stammtisch with its familiar “Reserviert” sign for favored denizens.  I pulled up a stool at the bar and enjoyed a couple mugs of Ganter beer while I skimmed the day’s edition of Badische Zeitung (I still have a faded clipping of the paper’s 1972 review of a play I co-wrote and directed while living in Freiburg). 

The American writer Thomas Wolfe once claimed you can’t go home again, and in many ways this is true.  Freiburg has changed so much since I lived there; things look familiar, but they are not the same.  Time marches on.  Still, it was nice to find a place that has remained much as I remember it.  The people might be new, tastes change. and the world outside is rushing into the unknown future.  There is nothing we can do about that.  Thankfully a few places have not been in such a hurry.  And the mugs of Ganter taste just as good as they did back in the day.  Perhaps one can never truly go home again, but Wolfe also understood the opportunities available to those who tried.  “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”   I am glad I followed his advice.  “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”   

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