Sonja Herbert 


© Copyright 2011 by Sonja Herbert

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

                                   Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

onja and Ken Herbert recently returned from having spent two years in Germany, where the following happened to them.

My Husband, Ken, and I moved into a small furnished apartment in Rottendorf, Germany, to live there for a few years. We got along fine, since I’m originally from Germany, and Ken taught German for several years. We were hoping our children would visit, and they did. Marit, Liesel, and Marit’s boyfriend Keith came for a four-week vacation in late September.

The second weekend they were with us I announced, “Let’s do something really cool Saturday. Sunday is the last day of the Oktoberfest in Munich, and it will be extremely crowded, so let’s go Saturday instead.”

Liesel’s eyes lit up. “What a great idea. I always wanted to see what that is like.”

Ken, added, “And it will be cheap. Munich isn’t that far from here. With a weekend train ticket, all five of us can travel there and back for only 34 Euro.”

“It will only take two hours for the trip,” I said. “We’ll have so much fun.”

Early the next morning, prepared with our cameras and backpacks, we trekked to the train station, where we got our ticket and entered the train. I was surprised at how many people wanted to take that train from our sleepy little town. Ken and I had taken the weekend trains before, and always found plenty of empty seats. But not today. When we got in, the train was already crowded. Eventually, we did find some seats in two separate compartments, and called ourselves lucky. Liesel sat on my lap, and all of us were reasonably comfortable. This part of the trip would take us to Nuremberg, about an hour away. Our next stop, just a few minutes away, was Wuerzburg, where many other people entered the train, which now was packed. Our train stopped in every little town on the way, and people got on in each of those towns, until I felt like the proverbial sardine in a can. I kept my elbows and feet as close to me as I could and considered myself lucky that twenty-year-old Liesel was so small.

In Nuremberg, we transferred to the train that would take us to Munich. Ken and I entered at one side of a compartment, and the girls and Keith at another. Ken and I stood in the aisle, wedged in by many other people, wondering how we would find our children. Eventually I saw them through the window, running along the train, looking for us. They squeezed into our compartment. Departure time came but the train did not move, instead, two train officials opened the doors and called, “This train has exceeded the limit of people it can transport. We will not leave until everybody standing in the aisles has left.”

“But we want to get to Munich,” someone called.

“There is another train on track five that will leave a few minutes after this one does. Please leave the train through the doors ahead of you.”

Since we stood close to the door where the officials were, we pushed between two heavy-set men to get out that way.

The train official stopped us. “You can’t leave from this door. You need to get out the other way.”

I looked back. Nothing moved. “Please, let us get out,” I said to the official in my best American accented German. “The line isn’t moving and it will take forever to get out the other side.”

“This is a security door, but, well, go ahead,” she said and stepped aside so we could leave.

We left, grateful for the fresh air, and along with a large group of other travelers, hurried to track five, where we found another train, maybe half full, waiting for us. The announcement board above the track didn’t say this train would go to Munich, but the people inside assured us that it would.

We found a set of seats and settled down for the second leg of our trip to the Oktoberfest. We arrived without further incident or discomfort an hour later.

Keith’s sister, who had come from Italy was to meet us at Beer Tent # 1on the Wies’n (the Oktoberfest grounds), but first we had to find the place where the action was. It was easy to follow the directions to the Wiesn. We found the way to the U-bahn, the underground tram, and squeezed in among all the other merry-makers on their way to the fest. After two stops, we left and followed the crowds in a lightly drizzling rain. Young men and women, already laughing and singing, arm in arm, walked around us. A blonde young woman giggled with a boyfriend, her hair braided under her umbrella and wearing a pink checkered dirndl with a peasant blouse and matching pink pumps.

The young man at her side wore three-quarter length Bavarian style lederhos’n with a grey jacket piped with green, and a perky Bavarian hat. Everywhere I looked, women wearing dirndls mingled with other, more plainly dressed people.

After crossing a large intersection, the Wies’n lay before us, a wonderland of color and excitement, accompanied by canned music. It seemed a very large carnival, with rides, bumper cars, and concession stands.

The first thing we saw was a haunted house ride, and we decided that we had time enough, so we paid our 2 Euros each, sat down in the little carts and went through a very kitschy and simple scare experience. By the time we came out again, the rain had pretty much stopped, and we set out to find the beer tents.

We passed the Twist and Twirl and the other rides and their blaring music, and found an intersection that pointed to the different ‘beer tents,’ which in reality were small wooden buildings. Eventually, at the other end of the field, we came across beer tent number one. However, the doors were closed and a line of people queued up in front of them, drinking beer, talking, singing and laughing. It was obvious that the beer drinking had gone on for a while already.

It had started raining again, and we waited for about a half hour before Keith’s sister found us. The children hugged and kissed, and decided to wait a little longer to see if they couldn’t get into the tent after all. We talked to other people standing in line, and got conflicting information. One guy told us the doors would be opened shortly, someone else said you needed to go around the tent and get in from the other side. A sign by the door, however, announced that the place was full and the doors wouldn’t be opened until later.

It was past noon by now and we were hungry. While the kids and I stayed in our place in the line, Ken brought us bratwursts with buns and mustard. After we ate, Liesel said, “This is a waste of time.” I agreed with Liesel, and since the other children wanted to wait a little longer, Liesel, Ken and I decided to meet them again two hours laterin front of the haunted house.

We took off towards the rides. As we squeezed through the crowds, Liesel and I needed to go to the bathroom. Looking for the toilets, Liesel suddenly stopped and giggled. “Look at that, Mom,” she said, and pointed to the sign over the toilet buildings. “It says, ‘Pisser, pisser,’” she announced amongst gales of laughter. In Germany, as in France, a section of the toilets for men is labeled ‘Pissoir,’ and for my American Liesel, this was a brand-new experience. She made me stand in front of the building, pointing to the sign, and took several pictures. Then I had to take some pictures of her, too, before we finally went into the bathroom.

Like most German bathrooms, you pay for using the public toilets, but you are also presented with a very clean and pleasant place to do your business, even in the overcrowded Oktoberfest, and Liesel appreciated that.

A few minutes after we left, Liesel pointed to something else; a gorgeous dark-skinned and dark-haired girl in the most lovely lavender dirndl, accompanied by the most handsome blond and blue-eyed young man in Lederhosen.

I approached them and said, “Excuse me, do you mind posing for a picture for my daughter who is visiting from America?”

They didn’t mind at all, and after the pictures were taken, we found out that the young woman came from Brazil, where she had met the German fellow, and she followed him to Munich. They took a few pictures of us, too, and we said good-bye and left.

The small beer stands that were squeezed between other concession stands and the attractions were so crowded with half drunk youth standing around them, buying and drinking beer, that we passed them by and went on for a Ferris wheel ride.

The Ferris wheel was humongous, one of the biggest transportable attractions we had ever seen. Liesel, Ken and I shared our gondola with four other people. As we reached the top, the gondola stopped. We could see out over the whole carnival grounds, with the beer tents at one side, and the attractions stretching out for several blocks. Ken and I took turns taking pictures of the grounds and of the large churches and other buildings of Munich that lay behind the grounds.

An older couple in our gondola asked where we were from. We told them we were living in the area right now, but our children were here visiting from the U.S. The old man told us that he had a sister that had immigrated to the States many years ago. We told them about our other children still waiting by the beer tents, hoping to get in, and they explained that one had to have a ticket or a special invitation to get in.

“At noon they close the doors, and no one can get in anymore unless you have a special invitation,” he said. He pulled three blue plastic strips from his pocket. “See these bracelets? If you wear one of these, you can get in. That doesn’t mean you’ll get a seat, but at least you can get in and see what’s going on.” He held the bracelets out to us. “You know what? You’re here for only a short time, and my wife and I come every year. Why don’t you take those bracelets, so you can at least see what’s going on?”

We protested, but they insisted, so we took the bracelets. When the ride was over, we bade them a grateful farewell and handed the bracelets to Liesel.

“Take them to Marit and Keith. Then you three can get in and have some fun,” Ken said. “Your mom and I will be just as happy walking around and seeing what else is going on and what other rides we want to ride.”

Liesel was delighted. We decided again to meet by the haunted house in two hours from now, and she went off.

Ken I and wandered around a bit more, bought some fried fish and chips to eat, and decided to try for an alcohol-free beer. We found a stand where it wasn’t too busy, bought our beers, drank them and returned the glasses. We wandered back to the haunted house, feeling as if we were done at the Oktoberfest, when we ran into the girls and Keith.

Keith had planned to escort his sister and her friend to their car, but everybody agreed it was time to go home, so the girls from Italy said good-bye and went on on their own.

On the way back to the road that would lead us to the subway, the girls told us about visiting the beer tent. Their armbands got them into the tent, but they couldn’t find a seat, so they stood against the wall watching the people who were sitting ordering beers, talking and laughing. Marit tried several times to stop a server to get some beer too, but they didn’t take the time for the people standing along the walls. The servers were rushed, hurried and probably dead tired. After a while this was too much for the kids, and they left.

On their way looking for us, they walked along the perimeter of the fair grounds and encountered a group of men standing and pissing against the fence. Marit and Liesel weren’t the only ones taking pictures of these Oktoberfest celebrants, because several other girls, probably from other countries too, also took pictures. My daughters thought that doing this in public was a terrible thing to do and I assured them that these guys were probably drunk. “People in Germany do not do this under normal circumstances,” I assured them.

“Let’s go find you all a beer, and then we’ll leave,” Ken suggested. We found a beer stand where the crowds weren’t too large, and the girls and Keith each got a glass of beer, paying the three Euros as a deposit for the glasses. When they were done drinking, they decided the glasses would make a great souvenir and the price wasn’t too large, either, so they took the empty glasses with them as we went on to the subway station.

The underground station was packed, with people coming and going, and trains coming by every three minutes or so. Several officials walked around, making sure things went smoothly in spite of the inebriation of most of the people. We asked one of the officials which train to take to the train station, and she told us. She looked at the beer glasses in the kids’ hands, and added that we weren’t allowed to get onto the subway train with the them, since they needed to stay on the fair grounds. However, after we told her these glasses were paid for and were souvenirs, which the girls would take to the United States, she recommended putting the glasses out of sight and getting on where she wasn’t watching.

The girls stashed the glasses into Ken’s backpack, and we boarded the next subway train to the main train station in Munich. We had plenty of time left for our last train back to Rottendorf, so we felt positive about getting seats in the train. We decided to get to the platform right now and get comfortable.

Imagine our surprise when we saw what seemed like thousands of people waiting on the platform. In one spot a group of happy young men were singing drinking songs, in another corner several middle aged people pushed as close to the tracks as they could. Ken and I looked at each other. “This is going to be fun,” Ken said.

I shrugged. “Nothing we can do about it.”

With the usual screeching of its brakes, the train arrived and slowed to a stop. We gathered around Ken and stood as close to the tracks as we could without falling into the track pit, hoping that one of the doors would open right in front of us. With our luck, however, as the train came to a stop, we were right in between two doors. We pushed our way through the throngs towards the closest door, when a train official came running along the platform and calling, “This train is full. Please refrain from trying to board. We have a special train for you leaving for Nuremberg momentarily on track nineteen. Please board the train waiting on track nineteen.”

Since it was hopeless trying to get into the scheduled train, we took off for track nineteen to at least get to Nuremberg. When we got there, I sighed with relief. The train wasn’t overly full yet, and we found seats, even though they weren’t next to each other. Across the aisle from Ken and me sat two other couples a bit younger than we were. We settled in, talked and listened to the other couples who talked loudly, obviously inebriated.

Time passed. Why wasn’t the train leaving? We started to wonder whether we would get our connection to Wuerzburg in Nuremburg. The lady across the aisle had to go to the bathroom, but came back after a while saying the toilet was stuffed up. About that time, the loudspeakers hissed to life. The announcer told us they were sorry, but the train wouldn’t be leaving right yet, since the brakes on the engine weren’t working right. But the problem would be fixed within half an hour. He thanked us for our patience and clicked off. The woman across from us cussed under her breath and left, probably to look for a bathroom in the station, and hoping to return in time for departure.

Another hour came and went, and the ruckus in the compartment in front of us became louder yet. Several groups of young men were swilling beer and singing and toasting to the Oktoberfest, while a few passengers got tired of waiting and left, which gave Ken and me and the two girls the chance to sit together. The loudspeaker again crackled to life, and the announcer told us that the brakes weren’t fixable, and they would shortly have a new engine to get us going. Sorry for the wait, but they wanted the passengers to be safe.

Another hour passed, and it was now eight o’clock. The announcer told us that this engine, too, had some problems, and they would have a new one in no time. I kept myself busy with my knitting, and Ken with his book. Marit was asleep against Keith’s shoulder, who also dropped off, and Liesel read.

Finally, forty-five minutes after the last announcement, the train left. I was sure we’d miss the last train out of Wuerzburg to Rottendorf, if we’d even make it that far. The train went agonizingly slow, since our unscheduled train had to give way to the scheduled trains, but eventually we arrived in Nuremburg.

By this time it was around midnight, but thankfully our connecting train to Wuerzburg and on to Rottendorf stood on its tracks, waiting for us. We hurried on, and the train left, about half an hour after its scheduled time. This train was not only very slow, in order to let other trains who were on schedule pass it by, but it was also one of the slow regional trains that stop at every tiny little town which has a train station. And, to top it all off, the train didn’t have a conductor who called out the names of the towns, and neither did it have an electronic announcement bar.

But we didn’t mind. We were happy to have caught the last train that would stop in Rottendorf, and we were glad to have escaped the drunk teenagers who rode with us to Nuremburg. We settled down, and when the train left, Ken decided to visit the bathroom. In this train, the WC, or Water Closet, as it’s still known in Germany, was clean. Ken returned with a smile on his face.

“I met this GI,” he said. “His German was really good.”

“Are you sure he wasn’t a German soldier?” I asked.

“He wore the standard issue. Oh, here he is coming.”

True enough, a young man in an American soldiers’ outfit came along the passageway and sat down on the other side of us. We got to talking, and he told us he was German, but was born in the States, so he signed up for the U.S. Army before he turned eighteen, so he wouldn’t lose his U.S. citizenship. He told us he lived in Schweinfurt, the only place that still has U.S. soldiers in the area.

As we talked, some other young men chimed in and told us they would have to leave a bit after Schweinfurt, too. We had a quite pleasant conversation as the train chugged along. The soldier left and we went on. We stopped at a larger town, which I assumed was Wuerzburg. We had to leave at the stop right after Wuerzburg, as that was where we lived. So the next stop came, and I told the children and Ken that we needed to leave. Ken asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. We passed Wuerzburg, and we need to get out of here now.”

So we grabbed our stuff and stumbled out of the train as it stopped.

It was pitch dark outside. We looked around, and Ken said, “That’s not Rottendorf. We need to get back in.”

He ran back to the train, but the doors wouldn’t open anymore and the train started to leave. We looked after the receding train dumbfounded. The train station we found ourselves in consisted of two tracks and a fence beyond which we heard a sound. “Moo.” It must have been a pasture for some local cows. We walked along the small platform until we could see the sign. It read, “Buchbronn.’ We looked around. Everything was dark. We saw no houses.

“I’m cold,” Liesel said and hugged herself.

Marit sank to the ground, not saying a word.

I checked my watch. It was 1:10 am.

I had to go to the bathroom. In the train, I wanted to wait since I knew we were very close to home, but now the need became imperative. I slid down the embankment and did my business behind some bushes while the rest of the family huddled together, trying to figure out what to do now.

Ken and I had lived in Rottendorf for over three months already, but we had never heard of a place named Buchbrunn, and I was sure I hadn’t seen it when I figured out our train trip on the Internet. For all we knew, we could still be forty kilometers or more from Rottendorf.

“Let’s see when the next train comes,” Ken said hopefully. After all here in Germany, trains come often, even at night. We found a train schedule hanging from a post. One lonely streetlamp a bit further away didn’t quite send enough light, but we finally made out that we were several stops away from Wuerzburg and Rottendorf.

As I made out the schedule, I sighed in relief. “The next train will be here around 2:00.” Everybody looked more hopeful until Ken said, “Are you sure that train is scheduled for Sundays, too? It’s Sunday now.”

I checked again. Ken was right. On Sunday mornings, the train we had just left was the last one until 7:00 in the morning.

“I’m cold,” Marit said, and I heard the misery of the whole world in her voice. She bravely tried not to fall apart and I appreciated her for that. After all, this was all my fault. If I’d have watched closer, we’d be in bed asleep right now.

“I think I see a walkway,” Keith said. We went closer, and across the tracks in front of us a path was meandering along what might have been a meadow, fringed with a few trees. We found a track crossing and started walking up the path. As we came closer I saw something round on the ground and picked it up. It was an apple. At least, we won’t starve to death, I thought as I followed my freezing children into the dark.

After just a few minutes we saw a light up ahead. “Maybe it’s a town,” Ken said. “Let’s see what we can find.”

The path widened out into a road, and as we got closer houses materialized out of the dark. A few street lamps broke through the dark, illuminating tightly shuttered private homes.

“Maybe we can find an industrial part of the town,” Ken said.

We went on, but things didn’t change. We were in a very sleepy residential area.

“Let’s knock on a door,” Marit suggested with chattering teeth.

“I don’t know. Nobody will open their doors in the middle of the night to a group of complete strangers,” I said.

“Look, there’s a light on in the upper window!” Liesel called out.

“I’ll try to ask for help,” I said. “It’s better if I do it. I’m a little old woman, and less threatening than you guys. Also, my German is better.”

I went to the door and rang the bell. Nothing happened. I rang again and the little speaker by the door came to life. “Yes?” a sleepy male voice asked.

I explained that we were lost because we got off the train too early, and asked really nicely if he would be so kind as to let us borrow a phone book so we could call a taxi.

“No,” the man said. “It’s late and I’m already in bed. Why don’t you try the neighbor? They’re always awake.”

Before I could ask again he’d disconnected the loudspeaker. By now it was past one thirty.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Marit said.

I gave her a reassuring hug. “Look at it this way. Whatever will happen, we’ll survive this, and when you’re back in the States, you’ll have a good laugh over it.”

“But I’m cold, hungry, and sleepy now,” she wailed.

We walked along the road, checking all the other houses, but everything was pitch dark.

Ken suggested we take another road and maybe we’d come across a gas station or something, so we went around a corner.

Suddenly Liesel said, “I saw a woman in that window right there.”

I looked, and yes, I faint light shone through that window.

I hurried up the walkway and was stopped by an iron gate locked in front of the door, but luckily I also saw a bell. I rang the bell and instantly the light in the window went out.

A moment later the window through which we had seen the light opened a crack. “Yes?” the wavery voice of an old lady asked.

I explained our problem, and she said, “Just a moment. I’ll get my husband.”

The window shut and all was quiet for what seemed a long time while I waited, shivering, in front of the iron gate. The rest of the family was huddled in the darkness by a tree a bit farther off.

I was wondering if these people would just let us stand in front of their door and go to sleep, but at that moment the door opened a crack and an old man looked out.

I explained our problem again. I told him I had a cell phone, but had no idea what number to call for help, and he said, “Just wait here for a few minutes. I’ll call you a taxi.”

I thanked him profusely and hurried back to the family. Encouraged, we dug out the last left-over sandwiches from our backpacks, and started eating. We expected at least a half hour to pass, since we assumed that the taxi would have to come all the way from Wuerzburg.

Imagine our surprise when about five minutes later a car, the first one we had seen in that town, came along the road and stopped in front of us. It was the taxi.

The taxi driver, a young man, was alert and friendly and told us he lived here in town and had still been up. We started piling into the car, when he said, “Just a minute. By law, I can only transport four people at a time, and you are five.”

Marit put on her prettiest young girl face and begged in her broken German. “Please, please, we’re so cold!”

I said, “The children are skinny. They can squeeze together. Can’t you make an exception?”

The driver said, “Okay then. It’s not that far.”

Ken sat in front and the rest of us squeezed into the back. We talked about the Oktoberfest and about America and in no time we had arrived.

Imagine our surprise when the driver delivered us in front of our house door and charged only twenty Euros! Ken gave him double and thanked him again, and the driver left.

I checked, and yes, I had my keys. We were home from one of the strangest days we ever had!

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