When You’re a Stranger. . .

Lately I’ve been contemplating that famous phrase from that famous Jew, Moses, “I am a stranger in a strange land”.  I’ve definitely had that feeling more than once, and relish the thought of it.  My good friend Misha, herself a faithful blogger here on wordpress.com, has just returned from a 3 month immersive journey.  I say “immersive” because instead of a quick paced, breakneck tour visiting a new country every week, she has done just 5 places in that time, spending about 10 days per place.  Recently she was in Turkey staying on a farm that she found through workaway.com.  I’m of course more than a little jealous.  I cannot think of a more foreign experience.  I’ve never looked into workaway, and Turkey is always someplace I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t found myself there.  Yet.

Looking through Misha’s photos, however, reminded me of a place where I truly found myself to be a stranger in a strange land.    Midway through a 7 week European saga, my friends and I found ourselves in the tiny German town of Freiburg im Breisgau for a night.  We had been spending some time on the fringe of Eastern Europe in the Czech Republic, but our plans required us to cross back to Western Europe for the duration of our trip.  There are two notable things about Freiburg im Breisgau: it is home to the ancient University of Freiburg and is on the fringe of the Black Forest.  And it looks like it came straight out of a fairy tale.  There’s also lots of spooky legends connected to the Black Forest, of witches good and bad, forest nymphs, and some crazy monks who would catch rabble-rousing ghosts.

Random Griffin statue in the Black Forest. . . spooky, kinda

To talk about our night in this legendary town, I found myself revisiting my journal in order to find the proper words in which to describe it.  This trip was five years ago now, so the details of that night were a little foggy in my brain.  Looking over the entry, I think I originally said it best, so I’ve simply retyped my words with minor editing for your reading pleasure.  Here goes. . .

Freiburg im Breisgau, the Black Forest, Germany, en route to Vienna, Austria

Wednesday 5/2/2007  2:23 pm

Currently training through the beautiful, slightly snowy Swiss Alps.  Mel and Sara are in the hall outside our private “Harry Potter” compartment taking pictures.  [Here there is a drawing of little houses with peaked Alpine roofs]  So, we got to Freiburg without a hitch, and made all of our 4 trains and connections which was pretty amazing for us.  Freiburg looked like a German fairy tale town.  We walked through the cobble-stoned streets with the cute little buildings.

Clock tower in Freiburg im Breisgau

We got to the Black Forest Hostel, which was perfectly picturesque and run by this young German hippie lady.  We went out to roam the forest!  Well, sort of.  We went up some steps and traipsed through trails on the fringes of the forest.  That was pretty cool.  We got spectacular views of the rooftops and the setting sun and rising moon and dense, dark, deep woods.  We got pretty winded though, with the not much sleep or movement or food all day, but Mel and Jill still went up this observation tower that looked like those rocket ship things on playgrounds, except huge.  When they came back, darkness was falling, and I have to admit on the trip back down I was a little spooked.  [Once it began to get dark, it happened incredibly fast, and we did not want to get lost there for the night!]  So we loudly  sang 90’s songs and country drinking songs out of tune to kill the deafening darkness.

Darkness closing in on us in the Black Forest

We wandered around town, looking for a place to drink and found gelato instead.  White chocolate for me, yum.  The streets were strangely empty, and we heard loud music, so walked into the direction of it.  You know what, this next experience is truly magical, and I want to be in the proper mood to describe it, so I’ll do that later.  I’m on this train for another 8 hours I think.

5:30 pm

So the scenery is changing now, but for the past hour or so we’ve been snaking through the majestic, lonely mountains and cottages in a setting that looks like the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland or the wrappers of those Lindt chocolates.  When we got to the source of the music, we found it was coming from this big truck with speakers in a huge crowd of people, many of whom were wearing white plastic helmets.  We were a little confused.  Was it a cult? But then we realized that the helmets were police, and they were on the fringes of a parade/protest rally/street party.  It was all of these punk rock college German kids dancing in the street with masses of onlookers.  I think it had something to do with gay rights, because there was a rainbow “peace” flag,  a pink flag with the poetic phrase “Yuppies Fuck Off” written on it, and a group of drag queen punk cheerleaders.  [In hindsight I’ve realized that while this rally possibly was for gay rights, it’s perhaps more likely it was to end the war in Iraq].  But we were standing there watching it all, when Sara goes “Why don’t we join?”  So we pushed past the onlookers and Politzei [German for police] and got right in and were a part of the parade!  It was a brilliant idea!!!  We ended up alongside this rag-tag drum line that was fucking amazing.  We danced with them for several streets.  At one point there was a chant when the music broke: “This is what democracy looks like!”.  And I thought “Heck yes!  This is humanity! Despite cultural and language barriers, we can join in and express the same things and feel joy and get fucking crazy together!” It was. . . . .truly magical.  I don’t think I can properly express what it looked like or felt like or the various people we came across.  I will say one thing: there was nobody that they could have been protesting against (the people leaning out of their windows seemed fully in favor) so the police were there to protect us from ourselves.  Which makes sense.  You can drink in the streets in Germany so everyone was, and I’m sure I smelt a spliff at one point or another.  We peeled off around 11 for a beer in a crowded bar with lots of men watching soccer (or football, practically a religious experience in Europe) but I’m sure later that night some minor shit went down.  The beer was good, and we went home after for a freezing night’s sleep because we were too cheap to rent sheets or blankets from the hostel.

Another view of this magical woodland town

. . . And that’s what I wrote almost 5 years ago on a day-long train bound for Vienna.  I guess the bottom line of this tale is that even though what I set out to communicate was the feeling of being unfamiliar with one’s surroundings, yet what I ultimately discovered was a surprising feeling of belonging, a universal humanity that I didn’t expect to find.  And for me, that’s ultimately what traveling is all about.

Good Luck and Happy Travels


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