Friday, September 4, 2009

Djohn's Dgerman Djaunt

Gruss Gott!

I find myself in the distinctly odd position of feeling obscurely unfaithful to my temporary home here in Djibouti by contemplating a description of my past week, spent at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. Suffice to say then that while the Alps are beautiful and Djibouti is exotic, I'm not sure that there is much to be gained by the comparison. Anyway, come away with me to Garmisch-Partenkirchen on wings of imagination...

As I said last week, I was sent off to the "Public Health Emergency Officer" annual meeting in Garmisch to learn more about the flu. THE flu. It is a matter of some debate of course as to whether I am indeed a "PHEO", but I guess on the grounds that I often appear in Public, and appear to be pretty Healthy, and that I am an Officer, I had met 3 of 4 qualifiers for the position. Close enough for Government work, I suppose. This being a social media site, I suppose in all conscience this would be a good place to put in plug about good public health practices, but honestly the sum total wisdom I have acquired on the matter is this: wash your hands. A lot. And stay home if you're sick. Got it? Then you can be a PHEO too!

Anyway, as it turns out I was lucky enough to get on the single Air France flight a week that leaves and returns to Djibouti. Not that I have anything against Ethiopian Airlines you understand, but all of their routes involve an 8 hour lay over in Addis Ababa. The flight left Ambouli airport here around midnight, and plunked us down in at De Gaulle Paris 7 hours later. The dissonance between the tiny airport in Djibouti and huge, modern, bustling CDG was breath taking - I'm sure I walked the whole length of terminal 2D with a stupid grin on my face, just looking at shops and concessionaires, smartly dressed business travelers, gleaming chrome and glass, escalators and elevators...what bliss! I poked my head out of an open sliding door and breathed in air with a bit of early morning crispness to it. Breathtaking!

I made it to my Munich bound flight with enough time to order a real espresso and savor it, and then in about an hour or so we touched down in Germany. The Munich airport was, if anything, more modern than De Gaulle, and moving sidewalks brought me right to the train ticket kiosk, and thence to the train stop below the airport. My friends...the trains really do run right on time. The ticket agent was kind enough to print out for me a detailed itinerary, as I had to change trains once, and as God is my witness, we were never any more than 30 seconds off our projected station ETA. It was awe-inspiring.

From Munich, the route is south to Garmisch, and as you leave the city behind you find yourself in a gently rolling countryside. The greens and blues of forests, fields and mountain lakes seemed almost bizarrely intense after 3 1/2 months in the muted duns and grays of Djibouti. Late summer, it seemed, was happily settled into the hills and valleys of Bavaria - tall fields of corn undulated in the breeze, fine fat cows stood placidly in fields that could have been sculpted by a talented artist trying to express the essence of "rolling hills", and plump apples reddened amidst the boughs of gnarled old trees. This was nice. I sat in the railroad car watching this bucolic scene slip by - the electric train almost silent around me - and don't recall a film or play of recent years that has pleased me as much as that hour's journeying.

What then of Garmisch? My friends, if Walt Disney were to sit down to create a "Germany-land", this is exactly what he would envision. The town sits in a fertile mountain valley, guarded on both sides by towering heights with conifer wrapped shoulders and grey stoney heads. The houses have steep peaked roofs, multiple gables, balconies with tumbling riots of geraniums and carefully tended yards full of flowers and fruit trees. The fields are dotted with small wooden huts, in which logs hewn from the fertile hills are stacked and left to dry for firewood. The landscape is laced with bicycle and walking paths, and the paths themselves full of families in their twos and threes and fours walking, cycling, or just sitting gratefully in the lengthening rays of the late August alpine sun.

And the Alps...they are always the first thing to catch your attention as you walk outside. The town is so compact, and the slope so close and so steep, that the eye must encounter them as the doors close behind you, and encountering is drawn up and up as peaks pile on top of peaks until at the very southern end, the dominating height of the Zugsptiz brings you to a pause. At almost 10,000 feet, it is Germany's highest mountain, and it sits surrounded by its lesser peers, serenely surveying the life of the village at its feet. This is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, and seems well loved and well tended by the folk who live there. The town manages to strike, I think, a nice balance between rural charm (the streets of the central village are closed nightly at 1730 so that the dairy cattle who have grazed on the west side of town may be walked through to the barns on the east), modern comfort, and ancient wilderness. And of course the fact that the city, the paths and the hills are studded with impossibly charming beer gardens doesn't hurt a bit.

The conference was like many of its ilk. There was some valuable stuff said and done, but honestly how long can you sit on those uncomfortable conference center chairs without your mind wandering? Food and lodgings at the Edelweiss Lodge - the Army's own recreational facility in Garmisch - were quite nice, if a bit generic. Food outside the gate was generally good. I had a lovely Indian dinner one night, but devoted the rest of the evenings to food stuffs ending with "schnitzel" or "wurst" washed down with cold beers of many varieties. Not elegant cuisine in general, but it certainly felt true to its surroundings. I didn't do too much touring, but spent a lot of free time in shorts and running shoes trotting north or south at the feet of mountains as seemed best. I did take a tour of the Partnach Gorge - a twisting, tumbling river running along the bottom of a fantastically sculptured valley, carved out of the limestone of the mountains over millennia. At times it was almost dark save for the light reflected from the torrent's churning surface from the narrow ribbon of sky visible overhead. All of this surrounded by the kind of deep green forests that must have given the Roman legions pause when first they regarded the land across the Rhine. Pretty spectacular stuff.

The conference wound to an end after 3 days, and I packed up the next morning. Rain clouds had tumbled in over the last two nights, accompanied on the first evening by rolling peals of thunder which echoed back and forth between the towering mountain walls of the valley. The trip back was uneventful - the previously resplendent late summer scenery now a bit duller under gray skies. I had a moment of panicked ambivalence when the Air France agent felt that she couldn't put me on a flight to Djibouti unless I could show her my visa (which as a military member stationed there I do not have). "So, I can't go back to Djibouti and I'll be forced to stay here in Germany?" I sighed and protested a bit more out of a sense of obligation. This may have been a mistake however as a second order agent was contacted who swiftly approved my passage. I mean, I knew I'd have to go back after a while, but who am I to break the rules? Oh well.

Left Paris at about midnight on a direct flight. This flight was interesting in that it was full of the wives and children of the French forces stationed in Djibouti, all returning from their summer vacations for the start of the school year. Infants and toddlers fussed and tumbled at every corner, and bigger boys and girls read, played games or harassed their siblings as their natures and opportunities dictated. The kids weren't bad though once we got in the air, nodding off in short order after the meal service. I would have done the same except for a willowy 14ish mademoiselle seated inboard of me, who apparently would expire if she didn't go to the WC every 45 minutes - waking me with a sweet and demur "Pardonnez" each time, so that I couldn't even work up a proper scowl. Oh well - I slept well the next day.

Finally we were here. We clambered down the boarding stairs to a waiting bus for the 20 foot drive to the terminal. It was 0730 or so and already pushing 100 degrees, with a leavening of humidity to really help one appreciate the heat. The wind, back in the east now, brought the slightly sour scent of the city to us as we stood in line to have our temperatures taken before going through immigration (no visa problems). I'd forgotten the smell - it fades out of your awareness after a day or two. I wish I could describe it better for you - it is a tang, with something of industry, something of agriculture, something of densely packed humanity and their refuse and another element of the blending of ocean and desert. Familiar now, in a rueful sort of way.

My colleagues were waiting for me outside the baggage claim, and off we rolled, past Khat corner, down the Somali road, and through the trebly guarded gates to home and CLU. Oddly comforting to find my wee metal box as I'd left it. I put a brave face on things for a couple of hours, then collapsed for a 3 hour nap. It's not so much that Germany seemed like a dream when I woke up, as that both places - Djibouti and Germany - seemed less substantial after comparing and contrasting them. Both are echoes, you see, simulations imperfect in one degree or another of what continues to seem more real to me than either.


Pictures are of ... well c'mon now!

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