For Christmas my dad received the little GPS unit to help us navigate from A to B in Deutschland. At around 10:30 we plugged in the address to a supermarket in Bad Godesberg, a suburb just south of Bonn and set out. You should know she was a constant companion through the stories that follow.Brigitte had an accent selector. We chose to make her a very proper Brit. (At some point down the line I might write about the anthropomorphizing of technology. Fortunately you will be spared that essay for the moment.)
I’ll be honest, I doubted Brigitte as she told us to prepare to turn left in 200 m. and stay left at the next traffic light. My wariness was warranted as she tried to get us to the supermarket by taking us over pedestrian dominated roads. I overrode her directions and had us park outside the shopping district. As we walked in, we passed a produce stand that let us load up on veggies. I again acted as translator and was gaining confidence in my ability to act as cultural and linguistic ambassador for my family.
In the grocery store we spread out, rounding up the necessary potatoes, garlic and beer to really make Christmas a meal to remember. Here, my translation abilities were being pushed to the limit. We needed heavy cream and I spent a solid three minutes contemplating the packages and cartons, trying to figure out what the Germans would call the stuff. As I worked my memory, an announcement was broadcast through the store. I didn’t pay attention as the other shoppers seemed unhurried.
Dad: Are they closing?
Matt: No, I don’t think so. I think 2 is the agreed closing time and its only 12.
Dad: I think they’re closing.
Matt: I need to read, wait.
The search continued for flour and eggs. Then I caught the announcement, which was a little tough to understand, but I caught two key words: “Jetzt” and “Gescholossen.” “Now” and “Closed.” Crap. As we hustled for the door we did an inventory of our stock. There was no baking soda or baking powder for baking. Carolyn and I doubled back. An announcement was then broadcast in English, “The Rewe is now closing so our employees can be with their families.” Oh, now they were guilt tripping us, but we needed powders.
I had used baking powder before. It’s called “Backpulver” or “bake-powder.” But I had never used soda. What the hell would they call that stuff? I scampered up and down the baking aisle, analyzing images and translating. An employee showed up who clearly wanted to be with her family (auf Deutsch)
Her: We’re closing; you must go to the check-out.
Me: We know, but we need…”baking soda.”
Her: Here, (handing me packets of backpulver) use this.
Me: We have that. No, it’s another white powder…
Carolyn (English): Let’s just go. We’ll make it without it.
Time to go. The rest of the family was already at the check-out, the cashier smiling, bemused at this crazy family that apparently did all of their holiday meal shopping on Christmas Eve. I wanted to explain the situation with the delayed flights and the misunderstanding about closing time….but didn’t. I just bagged furiously. The security guard opened the door for us, and explained to some poor souls at the entrance that the store was closed until after Christmas. We realized something was forgotten, I turned to run back in, but was met with the stern face of the guard. I backed down.
On the way home we stopped in Remagen, the town closest to our temporary home. The city would ordinarily be just another Romantic little village along the scenic Rhine, with St. Apollonis perched on a cliff overlooking the town and the winding cobblestone streets of the old town. Except Remagen as a bit more historical significance. During World War I, a railway trestle was built across the Rhine to supply the Western Front with men and supplies. In World War II, it was one of the last bridges left standing as the Allies pushed into the Rhineland. Hitler wanted it destroyed, but the bridge was captured by the Allies before it could be eliminated. The German commanders were executed for not destroying the bridge as the Allies streamed across it into the heart of Germany. After capturing the bridge, Patton sent Eisenhower a message: I have just pissed in the Rhine.
If the bridge hadn’t been captured, it would have taken weeks for the Allies to find another way across the river. The bridge collapsed ten days after it was taken, though, thanks structural damage done to the bridge. Now the towers of the bridge stand on either side of the river, no longer supporting a bridge, but serving as a war memorial. Unfortunately the museum was, you guessed it, geschlossen.
As part of the bridge looked in late 2008 as it was being overrun by Carolyn.
When we got back to the Forsthaus, I was put in charge of asking our landlords if they had any baking soda that we could borrow. The conversation in translation:
Me: (Into the intercom by their door) Hello, sorry to interrupt. I have a question: Do you have, I don't know the word in German, "baking soda"? It's a white powder that is used for baking?
Landlady: Oh, I see. Yes, one moment. (Coming downstairs to the door bearing packets of Backpulver)
Me: Oh, we already have that. No, I'm looking for another white powder used for baking. Um (thinking, "It has an arm and hammer on it?")...Sometimes children put it together with vinegar to make volcanoes? (Yes, I said that last part. How else do you differentiate baking soda and baking powder? It didn't work, she just looked confused. Then the family's 80 year-old aunt came downstairs apparently ready to go out. She was about four-and-a-half feet tall and sporting a navy blue jacket with a matching hat. She was surmounted by a massive, yellow, searchlight of a flower.)
Landlady: Aunt (I forget) do you know of another white powder used for baking other than Bakpulver?
Aunt: No...one moment, we used to have two, but now they are together in here.
She then turned the packet over and pointed out that the packet contained both sodium aluminum sulfate and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). This little packet was all we needed to get baking and everything would rise. With relief twinged with that familiar feeling of wanting to scream "In my country I am a competent, fully-functional adult, I swear!", I went back to our floor to get ready for Christmas mass at the Dom in Cologne…