A trans-Atlantic love story

For our last two nights in Deutschland, we’re paying homage to the old stomping grounds where hubby used to live six years ago.

Hubby and I dated for the summer of 2004, but broke things off when I took a job in Chicago. He subsequently took a new job himself and moved to Germany. Touche. We reconnected to say goodbye just before he left the country and decided to keep in touch. Several months later, I took him up on an invitation to visit (i.e. “stalked” him, as he likes to tell the story) and ended up staying in Germany with him for five weeks, during which time it became clear that 1) we were back together and 2) things were pretty serious. (Ironic that although distance was a big factor in our Chicago-Indy breakup, we somehow found a way to make things work between America and Europe.) In a fortuitous stroke of timing, the company hubby was working for disbanded in March, he ended up returning to the U.S. and, four months later, we were married. The rest, as they say, is history.

My fateful overseas flight on New Year’s Eve 2004 was only my second trip to Europe, the first being a fever-pitched high school bus tour that covered four countries in a week. Hubby was making his home in a small village called Ginsheim-Gustavsburg just outside Frankfurt, and that’s where we’re staying right now.

Ginsheim is totally different from Cologne. Much smaller, for starters, and more charming with half-timbered houses, a picturesque canal full of boats next to a walking trail, and a handful of local businesses and restaurants. You can easily catch the bus into nearby Mainz for shopping and a little excitement, but Ginsheim itself is a quiet, traditional German town in every way. Many of the homes and buildings have been here forever, passed down through families from one generation to the next.

Tomas, the hotel owner, REALLY did us a solid. Hubby booked lodging at Hotel Schafer, Tomas’ lovely establishment in Ginsheim, and when we arrived, explained that we had a little boy in tow.  In addition to the hotel rooms, there are also several apartments available to rent on the premises, so Tomas let hubby take a look at the two that were open this weekend and he settled on the larger.

Compared to some of the places we’ve stayed throughout this trip, these luxurious digs are damn near palatial! There’s a huge living room/sitting area, half sectioned off by fabric curtains to hide a double bed; a separate big bedroom with another double bed and a single bed; a small but nicely appointed full kitchen; a modern bathroom; two TVs; and tons of closets. AND, the whole suite costs about half of what we were paying for the expanded closet we’ve been sleeping in back in Cologne!

After checking in last night and making ourselves quite at home for a relaxing few hours, we tore ourselves away from our cushy pleasure palace in search of some dinner. During our previous time here in Ginsheim, hubby and I liked to frequent a small pub just down the street called Der Kleine Hexe; translation,“the little witch.” It’s a cozy little joint, full of cutesy witch dolls flying from the ceiling and old-school dark wood décor. The beer is cold, the food is great, and everything is super cheap.

Der Kleine Hexe

In fact, Hexe is where I spent that first New Year’s Eve with hubby all those years ago. The staff had prepared a feast and simply opened up the kitchen to let guests serve themselves from all manner of hearty German fare like gulaschesuppe, roast pork, sauerkraut, fish, toothsome breads, etc. For me, it was a fabulous introduction to German cuisine and hospitality. I remember standing in the street at midnight as 2005 rolled in, kissing my now-husband and watching the locals detonate enough fireworks to choke off the fresh air supply for the rest of the week.

So, last night, there wasn’t any question about where we’d have dinner. Hubby and I sandwiched the wee lad into a corner booth in the hopes of keeping his realm of destruction somewhat contained, and sipped away huge-ass mugs of cold Jever beer (three euros a pop – SCORE!)

The menu at Hexe hasn’t changed in six years. Hubby’s go-to order is something called “Sombrero Schnitzel,” a massive breaded pork cutlet topped with a German interpretation of Mexican ingredients — cheese, spicy tomato sauce and peppers, I believe. However, he passed it up in favor of spaghetti Bolognese. I sought out something I could share with the toddler and settled on a bowl of kasespatzle, a macaroni-and-cheese-type concoction of homemade noodles with a creamy sauce. I also got a small house salad on the side. The serving sizes were ginormous. Hubby made an admirable effort to finish his dinner and almost succeeded. I knew there was no way for me, and ended up bringing a bunch home in a to-go container.

The spatzle was yummy and soft, cooked just beyond al dente, exactly the way I like it. Even the toddler chowed down, and if that’s not a stamp of approval, I don’t know what is. Hubby snagged the first bite when the plate arrived at the table, thinking that the crispy bits on top were bacon. I was shocked he swallowed the mouthful after he realized that they were actually French-fried onions.

Full and happy, we rolled back to our expansive room and got a great night of shut-eye on the gloriously firm and comfortable beds.

Continuing our living large in Ginsheim, the hotel breakfast buffet was extensive. Europeans don’t do boring old rolls-and-coffee continental breakfasts. Ho ho ho, no! At nicer establishments like this one, you find a dizzying selection of options, many often surprising for American palates. In addition to the more conventional cold cereal, fresh fruit, juices, breads and pastries; our hotel sets out platters of German sausages, cheeses and cold cuts; a variety of spreadable toppings and accompaniments like tiny shrimp in a mayonnaisey sauce, veggies and pickles; and indigenously flavored jams (red currant? sultana?). There are also bowls full of whole nuts for the cracking and a mini-fridge of flavored yogurt cups. The only complaint was the coffee, kinda stale and not so great.

No matter, though. We would find our fix later at the Mainz food market. Every Saturday, the public space in the shadow of the imposing Mainz Dom cathedral shapeshifts into a teeming open-air market every bit as impressive as the ones in France. Stand after stand of beautiful produce, meats, eggs, cheeses, olives, breads, flowers, honey, oils — if they don’t have it, you don’t need it. The Christkindl market booths and decorations are also taking shape, lending an added sense of ceremony and joyous overtone. Many of the flower vendors are selling fragrant branches and wreathes made from seasonal greenery, bunches of fresh mistletoe, and festive arrangements of red and green blossoms.

Mainz market

We wandered through the bustling crowds, taking in all the sights, sounds and smells, and finally stopped to warm up with a coffee from a vendor operating out of the shell of an old French mini bus.

the kick-ass coffee bus

We took the huge line to be a good sign, and we were right. Coffee-snob hubby gave his double espresso the highest marks, declaring it the best java he’s ever had in Germany, and my cappuccino was delicious.

coffee bus wares

After a pleasant drive north past scenic vineyards (this is prime-time riesling/gewurztraminer production territory), we crossed over the Rhine on a ferryboat at the ridiculously quaint town of Rudesheim, much to the delight of the squealing toddler. The riverside villages are like something out of a fairytale with spired churches, crumbling stone castles and half-timbered homes. You half expect Hansel and Gretel to come bounding out around the corner at any moment.

Rudesheim on the Rhine

The toddler seems to have invented his own pseudo-Germanic dialect over the past week or so. We’ve been treated to verbal gems that crack us up, like “Where’s mein teddy?” and “Hold mein hand!” The wee dude also spontaneously gave the Hexe barman an enthusiastic and unprompted “Danke!” after being handed a glass of sparkling water. The barman seemed pleased, but lost patience and ignored us after the little guy thanked him for fourth time.

Sadly, the no-children-in-restaurants attitude has followed us south, I fear. We stopped into Hexe this afternoon for a beer and found half dozen or so people sitting around watching a football match on the TV in the corner. In utter silence. This was such a foreign concept, pun intended, I couldn’t get over it. And here we come, barging in with a noisy two-year-old. The reception was not warm. We managed to sit fairly quietly in a corner, nursing our beers, until the toddler tripped on a step and fell, letting loose with an ear-shattering wail. Every pair of eyes in the place was upon us instantly. I could sense the bad vibes shooting our way as hubby snatched the little guy up and hightailed it outside to finish his sobfest there without judgment. We left shortly thereafter.

Our last night in Germany — dinner in the hotel restaurant was the same old story, although the staff and diners seemed a little more forgiving than the Hexe crowd. This was a pretty upscale place, and the food was worth the trouble – schnitzel topped with pears and brie and served with potato croquettes for hubby, and scrumptiously tender pork medallions in a mushroom-cream sauce over spinach and linguine for me. Tasty, tasty stuff. Now if only the toddler had let us actually enjoy our dinners without insisting on running riot around the restaurant… Sigh. Dining out en masse is just not fun these days. Hubby does much better at chasing in these instances, namely because he eats so much faster than I do. I took the toddler back up to the room for his bath and hubby followed after paying the bill, thoughtfully bringing along a two-scoop serving of vanilla bean ice cream with a decadent chocolate sauce to pour over. That’s my guy!

After three weeks on the road, it’s time to pack it in and head to Frankfurt airport for our long haul home. Auf weidersehn and danke schoen, Deutschland.

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