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Jack Smith

Mark Twain once heard a Californian say that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective

October 24, 1985|JACK SMITH

We left our Danube cruise ship at Passau, Germany, and went by train to Frankfurt to begin the next phase of our holiday--an eight-day motor coach tour of "Romantic Germany."

We had signed with DER Tours both for the cruise and the motor coach tour. There are certain drawbacks to tours, but it is wonderful to have your luggage delivered to your room every night and picked up every morning, and I was happy to let some one else do the driving.

Having a free day in Frankfurt we set out innocently from the Intercontinental Hotel and almost immediately found ourselves in a district known, from its signs, as the "Eros Center"--a zone of peep shows, nude night clubs and other sorts of sex entertainments, including young women who seemed to be hanging about the doorways.

I suppose I will always be sorry that we didn't see a couple of shows, but all we did was have lunch in a Turkish restaurant, wondering whether the Turks had any terrorist enemies.

The next morning, having got directions at the hotel, we started out for the shopping district through the park along the Main river. It was early and there were few other strollers, but I noticed a middle-aged woman walking with a female boxer on a leash. Suddenly she stood still and yanked the dog up. A look of horror crossed her face.

A hundred yards away a man was walking with an unleashed shepherd dog. Obviously a male. Suddenly the shepherd saw the boxer. He bounded joyously toward her. The woman began shrieking what I took to be curses in German. She kicked furiously at the male, but without discouraging him from his mission. The male dog's owner strolled amiably up, evidently not worried about his dog's amorous assault.

The woman berated him shrilly, her face distorted with anger. She continued kicking at his dog, which was not in the least repulsed. Finally the man began cursing the woman. I had never before heard two Germans cursing each other in earnest. To my ear, it is not a beautiful language at best; in these circumstances it was almost physically painful.

Finally the man got his dog by the collar and pulled him away, cursing at the woman over his shoulder. She threw a few final curses at him, like stones, and then subsided into aggrieved mutterings.

I thought it was a better show than we would have been likely to see in the Eros Center.

I was never to penetrate the language. Over and over I was reminded of Mark Twain's perceptive essay about "The Awful German Language," in which he noted that he once heard a Californian student at Heidelberg, in one of his calmest moods, say that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.

I was momentarily cheered by a waitress in the hotel lunchroom, with whom I seemed able to converse.

"You speak very good English," I told her, meaning she spoke very good English for a German.

"I'm Irish," she said.

Our tour bus appeared at 9 a.m. on Sunday, as promised, and we boarded for our German odyssey. A young German woman named Ursula introduced herself as our guide, and introduced a stocky bearded man named Klaus as our driver. For eight days we were in their hands. Ursula knew the history of every place we came to, and the best places to eat; and Klaus had an eye for clearances, as we threaded our way through narrow medieval streets, that was not only uncanny but thrilling.

That first morning we drove through the pretty town of Weisbaden to Rudesheim, on the Rhine, and then boarded a river boat for a cruise up the Rhine past dozens of turreted and crenelated castles in various states of repair. They were stark reminders of the feudal centuries and the almost constant warfare Germany has known. Many today have been restored for use as very expensive hotels and restaurants.

We were disappointed in the legendary rock of the Lorelei. It is merely a large wedge of granite that obtrudes slightly into the Rhine, but does not look especially threatening to a sober navigator. Perhaps I expected it to be a rock down low in the water with sirens singing on it.

That evening we pulled into Heidelberg and after checking into our hotel were trundled up the hill to the famous red sandstone castle, which was destroyed twice by the French and once by lightning but stands today in restored magnificence. Our local guide for the castle was a woman who looked and talked very much like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Evidently someone mentioned the resemblance.

"No, no," she said. "I am not married eight times. I am married only once."

That night we strolled down the old walking street of Heidelberg and found that some of the bars were crowded with students--about as many young women as men, it seemed to me. They were drinking wine or beer and talking earnestly with one another, I assumed about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Kant; or perhaps only about the wonder of being young and sustained by generous parents in such a legendary place.

In the morning we walked down the street again and saw one of the reasons for its charm. In almost every shop someone was cleaning; trash was being swept up, walls were being washed down, and outside someone was scrubbing the sidewalk with buckets of water and a brush.

Los Angeles could learn something from the shopkeepers of Heidelberg.

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