Herb and Landis Harfst On The Loose In Germany (by the Skin of their Teeth!)!

Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Photo courtesy of Herb Harfst.

Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Photo courtesy of Herb Harfst.

The adventure started on September 3, 2013, with an automobile trip from Richmond, VA, to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, an uneventful three and a half hour drive. Since we had never flown Space-A from BWI, we parked in the short term lot and found the AMC gate and confirmed that we had correct information. There were 99 seats available on a flight to Ramstein AB, Germany, roll call at 2030 hrs. Before roll call, the seat count went to 100.

We then retrieved our car and drove to the Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard, a 25–30 minute drive away. We had been told by other Space-A travelers that it is possible to park free at the Yard. This is a fact. The lot is just outside the gate to the Yard. You can park there for two weeks with no action necessary on your part. For longer stays you must go through the gate to the base police station immediately to your right. There, you will need your driver’s license, automobile registration and proof of insurance. All this data is entered into their computer system and you can park indefinitely. They just ask that when you pick up your car that you notify the police that you have gone.

The Coast Guard people will give you the name of a cab company that will come and get you and take you to BWI for $30, including tip. Email us if you need the number sooner. Our taxi driver deposited us back at BWI at around 1630 and we found seats and began to wait. We were among the first potential travelers to arrive, but the longer we sat, the more crowed things became.

Ninety-nine seats began to seem less and less sufficient. Early in the process names began appearing on a large monitor screen by sign-up date within a category. The list grew longer and longer and our hopes began to waver along with those of other Category VI people. Roll call started at 1835 and was over just before 1900 and we didn’t make it. There were two couples ahead of us when all the seats had been filled. Herb was ready to go home but the Air Force sergeant in charge had told Landis not to leave because there would be another roll call at 2200 so we stayed.

At 2200 the roll call started and all six of the remaining people were called! We were going to Germany! The person checking us in put a big, red “O.B.” on our luggage tags and our boarding passes. Herb asked what O.B. meant and was told “Over Booked.” Herb wished he hadn’t asked. Had any of the Category I people showed up we could have been bumped. We didn’t start breathing easily until the wheels were off the ground.

The aircraft was a Boeing 747 belonging to Omni Air International. Anybody ever heard of them? Anyway, it was an uneventful flight and we arrived in Ramstein around 1230 local time. By the time we had reclaimed our luggage and gone through customs it was after 1400. We headed across the street to the Ramstein Inn. We had not made reservations so Landis headed straight to the central reservations office and made us a reservation.

When we went to check in, we found out that the reserved room was not in the inn but at a remote location more than a mile from the Inn. We had no car yet and there is no shuttle service between the lodgings and the inn (except to take you there and bring you back when your flight leaves) and there is no place to eat near the lodgings. We were told by central reservations people that as retirees we could not use any of the facilities in the Inn or in the connected mall. That was bum dope. We canceled the reservation and went to plan B.

We had been given the name and number of a local car rental agency that caters to Americans, has excellent service and competitive prices. It was then that we discovered that the cell phone service in the terminal is abysmal. While trying to reach the car rental agency, Landis was connected with a woman who spoke no English, who was the desk clerk at a hotel on the North Sea, close to Amsterdam. She knew nothing about renting cars and did not know where Ramstein was. Clearly, plan B was not working either.

Plan C: we have a smart phone and decided to try emailing the rental agency. There is no Wi-Fi in the Inn, at least not in the lobby. At this point we began to feel like poor old Charlie, riding on the MTA. Luckily, one of our fellow Space-A travelers, to whom we had given the name and number of the car rental agency, spotted an advertisement for the agency in one of those free tourist magazines. The ad stated that the company had an office in the Mall! Herb asked the desk clerk where it was and walked up to the office. He must have seemed like a wild man to the young lady behind the desk, but she helped him anyway by calling their off-base office and letting him talk to the rental agent. (The office in the mall could not rent us a car; it had to be done by their off-base office.) Not only did they have a car for us, there is a hotel connected with the rental agency and we had a room for the night. The rental agent said she would pick us up in 10 minutes. Actually, it was a little less than ten minutes.

We cannot say enough good things about the AMCR (American Military Community Ramstein) car rental company and the associated Hotel AMCR. Everyone we dealt with was knowledgeable, pleasant and courteous. Their cars are clean and in good repair. They don’t charge extra for automatic shift and there is a GPS in (or available for) every car. Their hotel rooms are spacious, comfortable, clean and quiet and, with the included breakfast, are price competitive with TML on the Air Base. Additionally, there is free Wi-Fi and cell phone service. Email us if you are interested in the details.

So, we had a car, we had a bed and we had a monster appetite and Herb needed tranquilizing. We asked at the desk and were told about the restaurant next door, Zur Dicken Emma, “Fat Emma’s.” We were also given discount coupons and a warning that the portions were huge. We walked next door and took a seat in their outdoor bier garten. A very pleasant (and pleasant to look at) young lady brought us bier … a liter of duenkel for Herb and a large Alkohol Frei for Landis. It was then about 1630 and we didn’t want to order a meal because we intended to come back later for dinner.

We ordered a half portion salad with grilled chicken to share between us. Three starving lumberjacks could not have eaten the salad that was delivered. Landis started at one end, Herb at the other and when both were sated there was more salad left than what we had eaten! Staggering back to our hotel room we did our best to stay awake for dinner but the bier and salad took their toll and we were both in bed by 1930 and didn’t wake up till the next morning.

After a good night’s sleep and a shower we were ready to scout out some breakfast. We didn’t have far to go. Just off the lobby at the AMCR Hotel is the breakfast room. Breakfast for the less adventurous was scrambled eggs, sausage and fried potatoes. For the rest of us there were several different kinds of bread, a selection of meats and cheeses, cereals, milk, juices, coffee, tea and hot chocolate. If you leave the room hungry it is your own fault! After breakfast we packed up, checked out, picked up our little Hyundai (rhymes with Sunday) and took off for our first destination.

One of our reasons for this trip was to pay a visit to an old friend of ours who now lives in the small town of Mengeringhausen, a dependency of the city of Bad Arolsen in the state of Hesse in central Germany. The drive from Ramstein was an easy one, mostly on secondary roads through the beautiful German countryside.

One of the most remarkable things we noticed on this leg of our trip was Germany’s commitment to alternative energy. Huge windmills dot the countryside by the hundreds. In many places there were solar energy farms with acres and acres of solar panels. It is very interesting to drive through the small towns and see houses and barns four and five hundred years old with their roofs covered with solar panels! We had seen all these things before but there seemed to be many more this trip than before.

enjoying German fare. Photo by Herb Harfst.

Enjoying German fare. Photo by Herb Harfst.

We arrived at Ingeborg’s house about 1300 and unloaded our gear and then it was time for lunch. Ingeborg has friends who have immigrated to Germany from Bulgaria and have opened a small restaurant. We all piled in the car and went to the restaurant and had lunch. In Germany, like in most European countries, the big meal of the day is the midday meal. We had no objections to that!

Herb collects German bier steins and so after lunch we made a tour of the second-hand shops in Mengeringhausen and a neighboring town of Twiste. The stein collection got larger in both places. At the shop in Twiste, Landis snagged a set of four seasons plates by Villeroy and Boch for a ridiculously low price. Packing for home was going to be interesting!

The next few days were spent enjoying the slow pace of life in a small town in Germany. We usually stay away from big cities and their hustle and bustle and try to meet the “real” people and eat the “real” food in whatever country we are in.

Our last day with Ingeborg was spent making a trip to the city of Eisenach and its castle, the Wartburg. We were driven there by Ingeborg’s niece, Simone, who is a high ranking officer in the state police. Eisenach is a city closely associated with Martin Luther—he called it his beloved city—and the Wartburg is the castle where he was “held captive” after he was declared to be an outlaw by the Emperor. While at the Wartburg, Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German. In the process, he standardized German spelling and grammar and in so doing became “the father of the high German language.” Herb is a Lutheran Lay Minister so the castle and city held a special meaning for him.

The castle, like most castles in Germany, is perched on top of a very high, very steep-sided hill in order to be defensible. We elected to walk up. We don’t regret that decision, but it was a very physically trying experience. Herb was clutching his nitroglycerin the whole way. It was well worth the climb. When we got to the top the first thing we did was check on the castle tours. We were lucky. The only English language tour of the day was to begin about an hour and a half after we got there. It was lunch time and so we found the restaurant and went and had lunch.

Lunch was Flammkuchen. Flame cake. Not a cake at all but a very thin, very crisp crust (think saltine cracker) spread with crème fraiche, thinly sliced onions, either ham or bacon and emmentaler cheese. It is baked in very high heat to crisp the crust and melt the cheese. It is delicious. Herb washed it down with a half-liter of Schwartzer Esel (Black Donkey) the local dark bier served in a very pretty glass stein (krug). Landis had her NA bier. Landis and Herb then dashed off for the tour.

We were amazed at the luxury to be found in a medieval castle. The “women’s quarters” were nothing short of spectacular. Mosaic scenes depicting the life of St. Elizabeth covered the walls and ceilings. Every living space in the castle has its own fireplace, a very innovative concept in its day. One can only imagine the amount of work it must have taken to keep the fireplaces burning in winter!

In stark contrast to all this opulence was the small room where Luther lived and worked while he was there. We could spend several pages telling you about the Wartburg, but you still wouldn’t know what it was like. You need to go take the tour.

The city of Eisenach was once a part of East Germany. We were told that during the communist era paint was not easily available. There are still a few of the concrete gray buildings in evidence but they are all but hidden by the explosion of color all around them. In addition to the natural, pent up yearning for beauty, the city is preparing for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 1517. Everything is being scrubbed or painted or repaired for the big event. We even saw a communist-era building painted with faux faschwerk! Eisenach is a city worth visiting.

The next day more of our friends, Franz and Ruth, who live in Oldenburg drove down to Mengeringhausen and, taking leave of Ingeborg, we drove in tandem to the city of Marburg. Franz and Ruth had chosen Marburg at random, partly because they had never been there either. We were all on the same footing except for the language thing.

We drove straight to the Tourist Information Office. If you have never used the services of the German Tourist Information Service, you need to try it. Every time we have used it the offices have been staffed by young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable people and they bend over backwards to help you, and they speak English. In our case, they found a hotel, called and made reservations for us. This was no easy task as there were two conventions going on in town and it was the season for school children to take field trips. After several tries they secured reservations for us at a small hotel on the edge of town.