Our trip to Europe to visit family was a combination of air and train travel. On Monday, September 24, we flew from Albuquerque to Chicago where we changed planes for the overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany. After landing Tuesday morning in Frankfurt, we boarded a train that took us to Mannheim, Germany. There we changed to a train that took us to Zurich, Switzerland. Below is a map showing the general route of the train and a description of our experiences getting from Albuquerque to Zurich.
Albuquerque to Zurich
Monday and Tuesday, September 24 and 25
We had a short connection on United airlines in Chicago and then another short connection on the Deutsche Bahn (German train) in Mannheim. As the departure day for our Germany trip approached I had tried to think positively and reassure myself that if we missed a connection it wouldn’t be the end of the world. No need to panic. As it turned out, I had mentally prepared myself for a different travel glitch than the one we experienced.
All went well in Chicago, as we arrived a few minutes early and our connecting gate was right next to our arrival gate. It was a long 8 hours overnight to cross the Atlantic. United treated us well with movies, dinner and breakfast so that helped pass the sleepless hours. I have no problem falling asleep in a car but, for some reason, I can’t sleep on airplanes.
Germany time is 8 hours ahead of New Mexico so when we landed in Frankfurt, sleep or no sleep, the day was well underway. It seemed an endless series of shuttles, gates and escalators to hustle our way through customs and baggage claim and finally to get to the train station. But there was no need to hurry since I had allowed us plenty of time when I made the train reservation to Zurich.
In fact, it was a bit too much time. We were quite bored with our hours long wait and more than relieved when it was finally time for our train. It was a 30 minute trip to Mannheim, where we would then have a short 6 minutes to get on the train going to Zurich. No sooner had we settled into our seats when I got a notice on my phone that our train from Mannheim was being rescheduled and would not be going to Zurich. Instead it would only go as far as Basel. So what would we do now?
God had it all figured out. A young man in the aisle across from us was involved in a long conversation in German with the conductor who was in the process of checking everyone’s tickets. I suspected that they might be discussing this latest piece of news and prayed that when the conductor got to our seats he would be able to converse in English and help us figure out what we should do. Not only was he helpful, but it turned out that Oliver, the young man he had just helped, was conversant in English, also. He was going to Zurich, too, and offered to take us under his wing once we got to Mannheim so we could figure out the best way to get to Zurich.
Oliver is a university student who lives in Zurich and was returning home from a trip to South America. He knew exactly what to do in Mannheim to get us a new itinerary. We will be about an hour and a half late arriving in Zurich but we are now comfortably settled in our seats with our minds at ease that there is plenty of time to make our connection from Basel to Zurich. The delays in our arrival time weren’t ones I had expected but I also hadn’t expected to have such a pleasurable encounter with a fellow traveler.
Getting through airport security in Albuquerque.
First Day in Zurich
Wednesday, September 26
It was a glorious September day in Zurich as we followed my cousin and his two sons on a walking tour through the Old Town. The oldest boy was in Kindergarten for the morning so we walked to the park and made a stop at the grocery store while we waited for him to get home. The Kindergarten is just a few doors down from the apartment and on our way back we crossed paths with the Kindergarten class walking back from an outing.
After lunch the boys put on their helmets and grabbed their scooters as we headed out to see the city. I never saw so much energy at work all afternoon as the boys zipped up and down the sidewalks on their scooters and we hustled to keep up with them.
So many picturesque street scenes in Old Town and along the lakeside promenade.
A Day of Climbing
Thursday, September 27
Today, instead of hustling after 2 boys on scooters, we got our exercise by climbing up 2 of Zurich’s viewpoint attractions. The Uetliberg mountain is visible from the city and easily accessible by train or by walking from one of several tram stops. We chose the tram and walking option and enjoyed the steep but pleasant trail that climbed through the woods to the top of the ridge. After enjoying the view from the top, we walked further along the ridge for a hike back down on a different trail.
Another opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of Zurich is available within the city. The Grossmuenster church is a distinctive landmark with its double towers. One of the towers has a viewing platform that can be reached by climbing 187 steps (I counted them) up a winding staircase inside the tower.
After hiking and climbing stairs it felt good to sit by the lakeshore for a while to relax and watch the swans. Another beautiful day in Zurich.
Getting to Manebach
Friday, September 28
Friday was another day of travel to get from Zurich to Manebach. We took the street car to the main train station in Zurich to board our train back up to Frankfurt. There we took a train to Erfurt where we changed trains again to go to Ilmenau.
When we arrived at Ilmenau my uncle and his wife were waiting for us with their car and drove us from Ilmenau to Manebach, where my uncle had made reservations for us at a small hotel on the outskirts of the village. It was dark when we got there so we had to wait until the next morning to get a look at the area around the village of Manebach.
Although Germany has many attractive villages, Manebach is special to our family. It is where my mother’s father was born and raised. My mother shared memories of the vacations she enjoyed as a child when her family would come from the city of Leipzig to visit her grandparents at their house in Manebach.
Manebach is in Thuringia Wald (“Wald” in German means “Forest”) and it is a popular destination for hiking. So, of course, our first day there was spent hiking one of the nearby trails.
The hike started by walking through the woods behind the hotel on a path to the village. In the middle of the village some stairs led up into the woods where we continued to climb the trail to the summit of Kickelhahn Mountain. There we found Kickelhahnturm (means Kickelhahn Tower), which required more climbing up the stairs inside the tower. It was all well worth it for the views and then for the refreshments that awaited us at the small cafe next to the tower.
From September to October
Monday, October 1
As if knowing it was time this morning to turn the calendar page from September to October, the weather turned from sunny, crisp autumn days to gray, chilly overcast skies. The timing couldn’t have been better for the activities that we had planned. Yesterday we enjoyed perfect weather for more walking and sightseeing in the hills and villages around Manebach. My aunt and her husband had driven from Leipzig the day before and were able to join the four of us on this day’s outing.
The plan was to ride the train from Manebach to Rennsteig where we could walk on the forest trails in that area. We walked to the Manebach train station, stopping on the way to look at the street where my grandfather had been born and spent his childhood. The original house has been torn down and replaced with a modern home. The current owners happened to be outside and when they learned why we had stopped there they invited us inside to look at a painting in the hallway that showed the original house.
The train from Manebach had a different schedule from what we had thought. We realized when we got to the station that there was still an hour before departure. Instead of sitting and waiting we decided to get on the train that was ready to leave for Ilmenau. It would be the same train that would turn around in Ilmenau, stopping at Manebach on the way to Rennsteig. It was a short, but scenic ride to Ilmenau where we had time to get off the train and look around before departure to Manebach and Rennsteig.
Today it was time to drive to Leipzig where we will stay with Leo and Gabrielle. They needed to get back for work, but Helga and Uli were kind enough to spend time with us this morning looking at some of the historical places in Manebach. We then drove back to Leipzig with them. The cloudy, drizzly October morning wasn’t a problem, since we weren’t going to be doing outdoor activities.
German Unity Day
Wednesday, October 3
As we approach the end of our time visiting family in Germany, it seems fitting that today is the day we travel from Leipzig to Frankfurt on the first part of our trip back to New Mexico. October 3 is a national holiday in Germany–German Unity Day. It is an observance of the event in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany were once again united to become one nation. For me, this trip to Germany has been a wonderful opportunity to reunite with a part of my family that I have been separated from for most of my life.
I was born shortly after World War II. My mother was the only one in her family who left Germany after the war. Everyone else lived in the part of Germany that was designated as East Germany. American citizens were not allowed to visit East Germany and East German citizens were not allowed to visit the West.
As children growing up in Michigan, my siblings and I knew we had grandparents and aunts and uncles in Germany who loved us but we had never met them. We always looked forward to Christmas and our birthdays when we would receive packages from “grandma in Germany.” Everything she sent was exciting and special, nothing like the things we had in the US. As we got older we exchanged letters with our family in Germany. But overseas telephone calls were an unknown luxury in our family. And, of course there was no such thing as the Internet.
It wasn’t until my senior year in college that I met my German family for the first time. My parents and I obtained special visas for a two-week visit. What an eye-opening experience for a naive American college student in the 1970’s to see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. But also what a thrill to spend time with my grandparents and aunt and uncle.
In the years since my first visit to Germany there have been several other opportunities for the German and American Schwesinger families to meet. Every time has been special and this time was no exception. I have learned a lot this visit about missing years in our shared family history. I hope in the near future to write down more of these stories. Meanwhile, here are a few pictures to illustrate part of the story of this visit.