16 December 2008

Snowy memories ...





The snow has stopped for now. It’s cloudy, but there’s some blue sky and a little sun. The forecast calls for a little more snow today. Tomorrow should be sunny, and then snow again on Thursday.

As I shot the photos above out my kitchen window, the scene – snow, branches, evergreens, blue sky and thin white clouds – brought up some memories. So I made myself a cup of coffee, cleared the hot ash from the dying woodstove fire and started a new one. As I watched the hungry flames lick around the dry wood, I let my mind wander ...

It was January, 1988. I was working as a civilian writer/editor with the U.S. Army Norddeutschland Public Affairs Office in Bremerhaven, Germany. Winter in the north of Germany is a long, drawn-out season, filled with frigid wind, rain, occasional light snow and ice. Lots of ice. By this time, after living there for two years, I’d learned the hard way how to dress for the weather, and every morning was a ritual of donning a hat, gloves, a thick wool coat, a knit scarf and warm, sheepskin-lined boots over several layers of clothing that included ski socks and at least one sweater. I carried my dress shoes in a tote to change into once I’d reached the relative warmth of my office.

I’d made a good number of friends since arriving in Germany, and a couple I’d grown close to suggested that we get a group together and go skiing. Now, Norddeutschland is flat as a pancake, except for the dikes that hold back the North Sea, and there’s not enough snow to ski on, really.
So I asked, innocently enough, “but where?”
“The Alps!”
The Alps. I’d heard of them, of course. I’d seen stunning pictures of those snowclad, craggy peaks and swooping valleys. I’d even seen Clint Eastwood in “The Eiger Sanction,” though it wasn’t exactly encouraging, all those climbers falling off the mountain and all. But my friends were insistent. Civilian DoD workers, they’d lived in Germany for many years and were avid skiers. They were tired of the wind, the rain, and the flatness of the terrain. And they convinced me that not only could this be done, it would be a blast.
So we put the word out. Before long, we had a group of 12 who wanted to go skiing for a week in the Alps and had both the money and the vacation time accrued to do so. Somehow, it became my job to organize the ski trip – find the right place, make our reservations and get everyone lodged, figure out the train schedules and set it all up.
I should say here that at this point in my life, my only experience on skis consisted of one horrifically cold, school-sponsored, day-long ski trip to Mammoth Mountain when I was a sixth-grader. I learned to snowplow, but once I fell down, I stayed down. I just couldn’t get the hang of standing up again on skis unless I took the damned things off. In addition, I’m afraid of heights.
The big day arrived. We met, the 12 of us, in the wee hours of the morning at the Bahnhof in Bremerhaven, loaded down with suitcases, skis, poles and ski-boots. We were headed for St. Veit, Austria, via Bremen, Franfurt, and Munich in West Germany, and then on to Salzburg, Austria. At each station we’d need to change trains.
It had all looked pretty easy on paper. In practice, it was chaos. Changing trains was a only minor hassle in Bremen, which has a medium-sized train station and only six or seven platforms. It helped that my friend R and her husband T, both of them ex-CIA agents, spoke German rather well. We humped our gear off the Bremen train to another platform and waited for the Frankfurt train to arrive. When it did, we all climbed on, found our compartments and got our tangle of gear stashed, and settled down for a pleasant ride to Frankfurt. We even indulged in a nice, hot breakfast with lots of strong coffee in the dining car. Yes, they really did have white tablecloths and roses on the tables.
The afternoon transfer at Frankfurt to the Munich train was pandemonium. We had a very short time to make our way, carting all our stuff, to the new platform and train. And the Frankfurt Bahnhof is huge – a crowded, noisy hub with what seemed like hundreds of platforms, row after row of shining trains, and thousands of people of all colors and nationalities. The train we were booked on, of course, was at the other end of the station. We made it, but barely, and by the time we found empty compartments and storage, everyone was puffed, sweaty and tired. There was talk of driving the whole way in caravan next time, if there was a next time.
We had enough time for plastic-wrapped sandwiches off a cart and a rest between Frankfurt and Munich. Spirits, both emotional and literal, were raised. The transfer at Munich was much simpler – we didn’t have so far to hike to find our train and by now, we’d worked out a system for dealing with skis, poles and luggage. On we went to Salzburg.
The whole journey, so far, had been lovely – the Germany countryside is picturesque and colorful. But now, the scenery turned beautiful. The hills and meadows, with their small villages, were glorious, dusted with snow, and of course in the distance there were glimpses of the famous Alps. The sun was headed down the sky by the time we arrived in the city of Mozart and the Von Trapp family, and changed trains one last time.
This final train was a local, a milk-run train that stopped in each little burgh along the way. The snow cover grew thicker. Finally, we reached our destination station. I can’t recall its name now, but it wasn’t St. Veit, as St. Veit didn’t have its own train station. We unloaded once again. This was a very small Bahnhof, with just one track and platform, and a tiny, empty hall. Except for the stationmaster and a bundled-up woman behind the magazine and candy counter, the 12 of us formed the entire crowd. It was breathtakingly cold.
We’d booked our week with SiegiTours, a ski school, resort and lodging operation in St. Veit. Within 15 minutes two vans arrived at the station to take us there. We all piled in and off we went, winding along narrow mountain roads that were clotted with snow and ridged with ice.
When we reached the village of St. Veit it was dark, but the fronts of the chalets and the village square were all lit up, including the magnificent, 1000-year-old church that dominates everything. All around us rose the Austrian Alps. Snow stood two feet deep. Icicles hung from the eaves and underfoot, the pavements were treacherous.
I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.
Stay tuned … there’s more to come. Also, please pardon the lack of spaces between paragraphs or even indents -- Blogger is not cooperating.

3 comments:

Larry Jones said...

I wait with baited breath. Maybe in the mean time I'll marry a Latin beauty queen, as the Google Ad suggests.

Sketch said...

I remember that trip! I LOVED that trip!

Folks, this place was beyond beautiful - it was the kinds of scenery and culture that just takes your breath away and leaves you feeling small and humbled and awed.

And the food! My gods, I was only a little kid at the time (seven, I think - maybe eight), but I still remember looking forward to mealtimes.

I, too, had trouble getting my skis out of the snow after falling ...

I will go back someday, and mom, you're going with me!

Bubs said...

That sounds fantastic. I can't wait to hear more of the story.