an idiot in germany

October 2001

Tuesday, 2nd October 2001.
No English

The Goethewanderweg is a 20km hike through the forests of Thuringen, starting in the town of Ilmenau. The townsfolk pride themselves on their misleading signs, which is most un-German. After hunting for the tourist bureau for nearly half-an-hour (Ilmenau isn't that big, either!) I managed to stumble upon it by mistake. A bell above the door jangled as I entered, and I greeted all and sundry in my best German.

Well, you can't fool everyone all the time, even with a massive advertising budget. One of the women behind the desk prodded another forward, stage whispering "This bloke's English!"
"Do you speak English?" I asked in German.
"A little bit, but not so well," the unanimously selected volunteer replied. In German. Unperturbed, I continued.
"That's ok, I speak a little bit of German, so we'll manage." Ok, so I didn't say that exactly, but I said something like that.

Having been furnished with a modest map and assurances that the route markings were more than adequate, I somehow made my way out of the town and onto the Goethewanderweg. It reminded me of el Camino, and the frequent challenges we faced trying to find those bloody yellow arrows to help us navigate out of the towns. (I think the problem was that the arrows were painted in Spanish.)

Goethe's hut sits atop Kickelhohn, where the trees grow straight up and the branches are all blown by a powerful wind from the south. The hut itself is a reconstruction, and the interior is covered in graffiti. Inspired by Goethe himself? This is the place, after all, where Goethe wrote Wayfarer's Night Song. He also scrawled "Ich liebe Wilhelmina" and "For a good time, sell your soul to the devil".

As I continued through the forest I came upon little fairy-tale stables, with hay stashed under the eaves, and wooden pens outside. I arrived at my destination - Stutzerbach - at sunset, and returned to Erfurt by bus and train.

I found Erfurt to be abuzz. There were people everywhere - I thought it might be student half-price night at the cinema! Oh the excitment! But no, it was more than that. There were people everywhere, and Polizei everywhere too. It was a beautiful autumn evening, and it took me ages to find somewhere to dine al fresco.

Still a little perplexed by the hive of activity, I sat down and started studying the menu. As I did so, a bloke appeared at my elbow and asked "Gibt es noch frei?" indicating the unused chair at my left. Figuring he would take it and join another table, I indicated that it was free.

He promptly sat down. Next to me.

I wasn't prepared for that, but I thought that perhaps he was waiting for someone, and hey it was kinda crowded there. So I did my best to ignore him (easy task when you don't speak the language too well) and continued my in-depth study of the menu, which was in a delightful mix of Italian and German.

The waitress eventually saw fit to take my order, and roger me sideways if the stranger at my table didn't order himself a beer. Alarm bells started going off right then, and I considered doing a runner.

But before I had a chance to leg it, he asked me where I was from, because he noticed when I ordered my meal that I spoke with an accent. "Australia," I replied, "Tasmania to be precise - home of David Boon (Legend) and (Brilliant Youngster) Ricky Ponting." I was surprised to hear that he didn't know of either Boonie or Punter.

It transpired that this bloke wasn't a weirdo, or at least didn't present to be one in the couple of hours I spent yakking with him. He told me that tomorrow is German reunification day, hence the masses of folks in the streets. At the end of the evening we said our farewells, but I still checked over my shoulder and doubled back a few times just to make sure he didn't follow me back to the hotel.

I wearily flopped on my bed, exhausted physically from the hike and mentally from speaking not a word of english for the entire day. And exhausted from trying to teach a German to pronounce "Uluru" like an Australian.