Losing baggage: Preconceived stereotypes fall to German hospitality
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
I’d cycled into Germany with too much baggage. Not the kind of baggage that hung from my bike rack, though I had plenty of that. This was mental baggage, and it hung from my brain like a two-toed sloth. It centered on a pre-conception regarding Germans and Germany, hatched out of ignorance and bolstered by stereotypes. Somewhere outside of Dresden, that misperception would be thoroughly and permanently broken.
It started a day earlier, as I wobbled across the border from the frozen Czech Republic. Tattered by recent ice storms, I had hauled a head-cold, wet socks and shockingly scant resolve. When I pulled into Dresden, I tried to dampen my blues by creating decent photographs. As I stood beneath an angry clump of clouds, I was focusing the lens mechanism when it stuck. It had simply stopped working. I packed up my camera, cursed, then wobbled out of town.
Somewhere up the road the wobble worsened, so I jumped off my bike to take a look. It was a freshly-bent rim. After six months, seven countries, and 6,000 miles, gravity was having its way with my gear. I stood for a moment and took inventory.
It was a spectacle of spent equipment. Among the dead or dying were my bike seat, bike bags, chain, chain-rings, cogs, cyclo-computer, cables, bar-tape, brakes, straps, shorts, tires, shoes, glasses and gloves. If it wasn’t worn, battered or broken, it suffered, at the very least, from some major malfunction. All of this paled in comparison to the breakdown of my $1,000 camera lens.
The lens was my creative bread and butter, and its collapse fed a reservoir of self-doubt. As the reservoir rose, my artistic creativity was, slowly but surely, drowning.
I tried to shake it off and turned my attention back to my surroundings. It occurred to me that I had no idea where I was. I pulled out a map and leaned on my bike. Suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, my back tire exploded. Stunned, I dug in my bags for a spare tube, and in a crowning moment of misery, found none. I took a seat on my bicycle trailer and as a light rain picked up, I sat lost, lonely and stranded.
Then came Burgitt Lange.
Burgitt was cycling home from Dresden where she worked as a pediatrician. When she got a look at me, she clamped on her brakes and threw a compassionate look my way.
“Are you all right?” she asked sincerely.
“Do you have a decent bike pump?” I replied, having since scrounged an inner-tube. She wrestled inside her bag. “Where are you coming from?” she asked as she handed me her pump. “California,” I responded and her eyes lit up. “We vacationed in Yosemite last year! I love California!” I nodded with a half-hearted smile.
She asked where I started. “Across the states, then a loop of Europe,” I replied gloomily.
She looked at me with genuine interest and asked, “Is there a reason for your journey?”
I told her I was raising money for a charity.
“Where will you stay tonight?” she asked.
“I don’t really know,” I replied.
“Would you like to come and stay with me and my family? My husband could help you with your route – and he speaks better English than me.”
Now my eyes lit up. “Yes,” I said without hesitation, “I would like that very much.”
I followed Burgitt along a bike path, through a small village, up a hill, to her large village home. It was there I met her husband, Alexandre, and their son Konrad, whose brother Tobias was away at college.
After a shower and a delicious home-cooked meal, the three of us gathered in the living room. That night we talked, looked through photos, joked and had fun. It came to me that these were quality people, who were intelligent, open, connected and awake. That night we made a pact that when I got back to Tahoe they would come for a visit. With that I said goodnight and we all went to bed.
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I said good-bye to the Langes. I gathered my things and pushed off in the cold. The night before, Alexandre mentioned the forecast called for snow. I was hardly fazed and felt as though their single act of kindness could get me through a thousand blizzards.
For the next two days, I pedaled ever west, drifting lazily along the still-flowing Elbe. I glided through the cities of Meissen, Torgau, Dessau and Oscherleb. As I pedaled into the pint-size village of Ausleben, the streets narrowed to cobble. I was rambling between rows of stone cottages when I stopped to peel an orange. I looked over my shoulder to spy a cemetery that housed a large stone monument. It was a memorial in remembrance of World War II. An eerie feeling came over me.
For a moment I tried to imagine the unimaginable. A worldwide conflict that, directly or indirectly, left 3 percent of the world’s population dead. Just then, an elderly man walked across the road. His eyes fixed on mine. Had it been 1945, it might have been a pistol. He smiled a hearty smile, waved, then turned and walked away.
That evening, on the outskirts of Braunschweig, a bone-chilling frost penetrated the air. I pulled up to the Behrens Guesthaus seeking shelter and warmth. The door opened and I received both from owner K. Sittenberg.
“Where are you coming from?” she asked while she showed me to a room.
“Well I started in San Francisco then rode to New York. Then I flew to Lyon, and rode to Geneva, Vienna, Budapest and Prague.” That seemed to capture her attention.
“It’s cold out there,” she said, then asked, “What is the reason behind your journey?”
“I am a journalist traveling the world by bicycle, trying to raise money for a charity,” I replied.
“Right,” she said, and showed me inside. When I dropped my bags, she walked toward the door. “Well, I’ll be upstairs if you need me; please make yourself at home,” she said.
“Wait,” I responded, “How much do I owe you?”
She smiled deeply and replied, “Tonight, dear, your stay is on me.”
The next morning I left the guest house and pedaled into Braunschweig, with more questions than answers. Had all this friendliness been a fluke? Was there some kind of cosmic anomaly penetrating a hole in the ozone layer? Perhaps it was global warming? As I pondered these and other unimportant questions, a voice came from behind.
“Where are you coming from?” it asked.
I turned toward the gleam of two huge smiles coming from a pair of women standing next to a vat of mulled wine.
“Everywhere,” I said in hopes of saving some time.
“You look like you’ve come a long way. Is there a reason for your journey?” they asked.
“Many,” I replied hoping to make my getaway.
“Do you like Germany?” one asked.
“The people here are very kind,” I said nervously trying to make my escape.
One woman moved in front of me and the other handed over a massive bag of Christmas cookies. “We thought you might like this,” one said, and the other one just smiled.
I pedaled out of Braunschweig to the open fields and farmlands across the center of Germany. There, on Highway 214, just short of Holland, I took refuge in the notion that I’d exchanged my preconceived baggage for a 500-gram bag of shortbread.
Dec. 7th-17th, 2005
Dresden, Dresden,Trebitz, Borne, Braunschweig, Nienburg, Diepholz, New Shoonebeek, Zwolle, Naarden, Amsterdam
Mileage log: 6,002 -6,630
elevation: 80-1500 ft.
“Broken lines, broken strings, broken threads, broken springs,
broken idols, broken heads, people sleeping, in broken beds.
Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’. Everything is broken.”
– Bob Dylan, “Everything Is Broke”
“I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
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