Chapter Three
October, 1999

Our local river these days is the Ahr, a tributary of the Rhein. All along it, grape vines grow in neat rows on slopes darn near vertical. As best as I can figure from the bits of conversation around me and my sketchy grasp of German, the entire area was once volcanic. The legacy is several natural hot springs that even the Romans visited and a rock that traps the sun's heat, keeping grape vines happy and fueling a portion of the German wine industry.

The towns along the Ahr each have an arrangement of local vineyards nearby, and it seems every town has a grape harvest/wine festival in the fall. Local culture cannot go unsampled, so we piled into our rented station-wagons (did you know that BMW makes station-wagons?) and drove up river. As you go, the road gets narrower and windier, becoming especially challenging when a tractor pulling a trailer laden with two tubs (approximately bathtub volume) overflowing with grapes, suddenly appears in the on-coming lane. The further along, the more vineyards, even on the steepening slopes. I was amazed that the vines run vertically on the hills, rather than horizontally, but even more amazed that the vines can be attended and the grapes harvested without the workers sliding from the top of the hill to the river below.

Germans seem to take their alcohol very seriously. Different regions have different beers of preference, and the waitstaff will let you know if you order the wrong thing. In Köln, kölsch is the thing to drink. We once had a meal in a restaurant/pub that was linked to the Brauhaus (brewery) for the kölsch, Früh. Someone ordered the wrong kind of beer, the waiter emphatically announced, "Kölsch!" and that's what he brought. End of discussion. There are even rumors of a low-alcohol "training beer" that children drink. I've not yet decided if the training is to educate children how to handle alcohol or if it's to get them used to the flavor of beer. Beer is not a drink; it's more a way of life.

Folks along the Ahr take their wine just as seriously. There are whole sections in the wine aisles of supermarkets labeled "Ahr Wein." At harvest time, there is a very light, sweet and bubbly white wine (think an alcoholic Martinelli's made from white grape juice) that suddenly everyone has for a limited period. Anyone serving it has a sign out front announcing, "Federweiser!"

Wine-festing day is the wrong time to try to get to know a town. I've no idea what Altenahr might be known for. But there was a party there, one that had evidently been going for most of the day by the time we arrived in late afternoon. Most folks had that fuzzy look drunk people get about them, the vendors had run out of glasses and would only sell to those who brought a glass to the counter, the musicians were duelling traditional tunes from open space to open space. The town had rigged a fountain in the river, and when the sun went down, there were colored lights in it.

And the vendors were out in force. You could get wursts and chips (French fries) here, nuts burnt in sugar there, fresh pretzels around the corner, and double salt black licorice up the hill. Oh, and the occasional squash. . .

I can't speak to the squash, but I discovered I have a hidden addiction to the nuts, so warm and crunchy sweet, something I've not been able to get since that weekend. The pretzels were melt-in-your-mouth warm, golden outside and soft and chewy inside, with regular rocks of salt clinging to the crusts. The licorice came in all sorts of varieties, all of it black. Little black licorice squares with pink sprinkles, tubes of black licorice filled with lemon flavored frosting, black licorice spirals, black licorice pastiles, and DZ (double salt) medalions. I've not got the taste yet for the DZ's; they make me pull in my cheeks and stick my tongue to the roof of my mouth and wrinkle my nose and squint my eyes. Ian can eat them like they were sugar coated. I think I'll be sticking to the winegums and gummi bears. The bears are reputed to be a German original.
Nothing quite reminds you that it's fall and that winter is coming like the sun going down on an October afternoon. At least, that's true here. After sundown, you can see your breath outside. And so we did the only logical thing: go inside. What we ended up inside was a drinking hall. Two long halls, linked in the middle, the walls arching up and meeting at the middle of the ceiling, gave the place a rather quanset hut feel, kind of like being inside half a tin can. Both walls were lined with tables made from the tops of wine barrels; just one was large enough to seat the eight of us on stools and benches. The music alternated between traditional German songs, presumably drinking songs, and the latest hits off Viva (the German equivalent of MTV) and MTV-Europe. Periodically, people would get up and dance in the narrow space between the tables. Some gentleman was dancing as we walked in, and he snatched me into that space to dance. The only German-speaker in our group explained to him that I spoke no German, and evidently was told that didn't matter; he just wanted to "twirl" me.

Local wine was the thing to drink, and I have no idea how many bottles the table of us consumed. The only thing to eat were prepackaged pretzels, a sorry follow-up to the fresh ones outside. A vendor came through with roses, and one of the guys bought roses for all the women in our group; as the wine bottles emptied, the roses took up residence in them. A group of guys at another table bought a round of drinks for a table full of girls and were rewarded with a song that was susinctly translated as, "Thanks for the drinks but fuck you anyway." One of our members was so delighted by the whole exchange he talked someone else into buying the same table roses so they would sing for us. It succeded; the girls got roses, we got the song, and then they came and joined us anyway.

We drank, we danced, we sang along to songs we didn't know. Someone passed out sparklers, and we lit them and waved them, along with everyone else in the room, humming along to a song everyone else knew and felt quite strongly about. Afterward, the crowd got into a friendly sort of argument with the waitress; she thought the lights for the room should be on after the sparklers were out, the rest of the room thought that candle light was just fine. People would sneak over to the lightswitch and everyone would cheer and then the waitress would turn the lights back on again.

We moved on eventually, as things seemed to be winding down. Half-way home we stopped for dinner and discovered that we'd left someone behind. A rescue expedition was dispatched and I stood in the cold, watching the lights on the hillside, spilling like water off the grape leaves and tumbling head over heals down the aisles between vines into the river below. The next morning, even the leaves on the vines had started to change colors as Autumn stopped pretending and moved in.

Chapter Four

Ian Gilman / Germany Journal
DolciDeleria / Germany Journal
Copyright 1998-2013, Ian Gilman & Christina Willott