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DEUTSCHLAND DUET : To Germany with Mark: A paternal diary of a 2 1/2-week quest for a son's roots

October 19, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Martin Bernheimer is The Times ' music critic

There would be no music. Not this time. The consumer's advocate wasn't going to evade Hollywood Bowl in order to cover flights of Wagnerian fancy in Bayreuth. He had no intention of attending any Straussian exhumation at the Munich Opera. This trip was to be blissfully unprofessional.

This trip was to be mine.

Well, that's not quite right. This trip was to be ours . Mark's and mine. Mark happens to be the eldest of the Bernheimer children. Like his three sisters, he isn't much interested in what his father, the friendly critical fossil, regards as the loftiest muse. Mark prefers rock to Rachmaninoff.

He's normal.

He also happens to be a bright, sensitive, tough, all-American, gum-chewing young man who just turned 22 and who just graduated from the University of Oregon. In a few weeks he would begin his first job, as an assignment editor for a television station in Eugene. But before Mark faced the rigors of the real world, I had promised him a little escape.

Actually, it was a big escape, a 2 1/2-week quest for his Germanic roots. Mark had never been out of the country before, unless one counted Rosarito Beach. This would be his graduation gift--an indulgence facilitated by two convenient facts: (1) Dad happened to be a frequent flyer, and (2) Pan Am happened to have an attractive save-up-miles-and-get-a-free-ride program called Worldpass.

I sent Mark a German guidebook. He said it looked nice, but he didn't read it. He could do that on the plane. We agreed on a plan: There would be no plan. All we knew was that we were to arrive in Munich and depart from Frankfurt. Whatever happened in between was left to fate, whim, mood, the wafting of the wind, the strength of the sagging dollar and the state of a precarious traveling exchequer.

We didn't worry, much, about terrorism. We told each other that we shouldn't succumb to popular hysteria. People could get killed crossing the street at home. Drowning in one's own bathtub was a distinct possibility. Europe held no monopoly on danger. At least there wouldn't be too many other American tourists impeding our progress.

I quoted Henry James: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to."

"Let's not linger around airports," Mark suggested.

We swallowed hard, and counted the days.

Getting there wasn't half the fun. Pan Am lost my Worldpass exchange-coupon request. Then, while a new one was rushed to the East Coast, Pan Am inadvertently canceled our reservation. Then, when the reservation was reinstated, Pan Am canceled its almost-direct flight, sending us to Munich haltingly via New York and London. Then there was the engine trouble at Kennedy. We didn't mind any of this, much. The price was right.

En route, we weren't even put off by the flight attendant's recitation of the dinner menu: "You want pot roast or mystery fish?" I didn't care that the classical music channel offered a long-playing surface hiss instead of the promised "Turandot." Mark got his kind of music.

The hours crept on apace. We collaborated on crossword puzzles. We pondered the meaning of life. We watched an edited version of "Murphy's Romance" and wondered what could have been deleted. Thousands of miles and magazines later, Mark watched "Jewel of the Nile" while the old man resorted to reading the German guide book.

We got there at low noon, bleary, bedraggled and happy. Munich, which happens to be my natal city, loomed gray, cold and wet. The first days were consumed with casual sightseeing, not-so-casual eating and drinking and the solving of some weighty problems:

--How to deal with the Klo-Frau , that elderly and indiscreet attendant who womans public men's rooms.

--How to get a glass of water in a restaurant.

--How to find a place to stroll on sidewalks, between the cafe tables and the parked cars (yes, Virginia, in Germany they park cars on the sidewalk).

--How to explain that the beloved bologna-like staple, leberkaes , contains neither liver nor cheese.

--How to analyze the difference between light beer, dark beer and, best of all, weissbier (made with wheat malt instead of barley malt for a distinctive champagne flavor).

We mastered the efficient, spanking-clean subway system, if not its Byzantine do-your-own-ticketing system. We felt inner pangs when we eyed the long lines at McDonald's, where the simplest hamburger sells for DM 2.20--roughly $1.10. That seemed cheap compared to the going rate in cafes for a pot of hot water and a tea bag: DM 5.

Mark, who had never quite recovered from the summer he spent working in Reno, developed an eye for the cheerful street-corner gambling dens. Alas, he never quite figured out the secrets of the self-manipulating one-armed bandits called, with obvious justification, "Risiko."

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