Way back in the 80’s my family met Helga when she was staying in Kandos (where our relatives live) after coming to Australia for the 16th World Scout Jamboree (1987-88). Helga enjoyed her time down under so much that she wanted to stay on longer and do some travelling around and thus came to stay with us in Sydney. Helga’s love of Australia has never died and she has come back to visit five times over the last 25 years!
Many times over the years Helga has asked me when I will come and visit her and Jean-Pierre (Helga’s now husband, who we met during one of her subsequent visits) in Germany. I think she may have been lamenting that none of the Carrolls would ever make it over to Germany! However, when Damien and I commenced planning our trip for 2012 I said that we would have to make sure we visited Helga and JP in Grapel.
We soon realised that camping around Europe was going to be the only way that we would likely afford to stay in this part of the world for the period of time we would like. So I got in contact with Helga and asked if she would mind helping us buy a car when we got to Germany so that we could go camping. To this Helga replied that we could instead borrow their car and caravan for as long as we liked. Damien and I were both a bit gob smacked by this generosity! But Helga stressed that this was her way of thanking all the people in Australia who have been kind and helpful to her over the years. Thus, we thanked Helga profusely and accepted her offer.
As I mentioned in my post about Hamburg, we met JP the first day there but we didn’t meet up with Helga until she kindly drove up to Hamburg to pick us up a couple of days later. It felt strange and wonderful to me to be meeting her in Germany after all the years of her always meeting me in Australia. Damien had been fortunate to meet Helga and her daughter, Christine, when they were last in Australia so he was at least familiar with my dear friend already.
Damien and I had been keen to check out the Hamburg Ohlsdorf Cemetery that Christian had driven us through on our mini tour on the first night there. It is the largest cemetery in the world and it is quite a sight to behold. It is so beautiful that it feels more like a mega park than a cemetery. Christine had told Helga that we wanted to go there so after meeting us in the early afternoon we went for a drive through some of the cemetery. It is literally so big that it has more than 10 chapels and you would seriously get lost in there without a map! We stopped off at the Commonwealth War graves section and had a bit of wander and saw the graves of a number of Kiwis.
Arriving in Grapel at their home was really cool, as although I have seen photos of what Damien and I had dubbed (as a result of the photos) as the Gingerbread House, it was so lovely to finally see it for real. We spent nearly a week in total with Helga and JP in their gorgeous home. We were so content just to be there for a while and soak up the calm and ambience of their home and village. It’s fair to say that we were treated like royalty and I on occasion felt a bit guilty about how well we were being looked after by our hosts! Needless to say, the old belt buckle tells a story about that…maybe one too many slices of bread, cheese and meats with lashes of butter may have been consumed!
We did go on a couple of day trips whilst we were with Helga and JP. The first was to the nearby town of Stade which was very charming indeed. JP took us specifically to a museum/house that is exactly the same vintage as their home in Grapel. It has been preserved inside to look as it would have been three hundred odd years ago. This was a wonderful insight for us and added to the knowledge that JP had already imparted with regard to their own abode. After that we went and had a delicious lunch at a café that they enjoy dining at from time to time with friends. Our meals were huge! I forget the German name for what Damien and I both had but it was a kind of meat in jelly with a decadent cream dressing…oh and Damien had a side of what was to become one of our German faves: Bratkartoffeln – potatoes and speck sauted in butter. I had potato balls. This is not the German nor elegant way of describing them I’m sure, but they were tasty little balls! Probably the way we would describe them at home is croquettes.
One of our other day trips was to Verden where JP, Helga and her daughter Christine were participating in a choir gathering of several hundred people at the cathedral. Damien and I spent the day in the town lazying around in a café and it was an entirely brilliant way to waste a day!! I know it is one we will both look back on fondly. We met the others back at the Cathedral for lunch. We watched the grand finale of the choir gathering later in the evening from our prime position at the back of the cathedral. I’ve attached a video of us that perhaps is only amusing to Damien and I, but hey, it’s there if you want to take a peek.
One of the really great things about our time with Helga and JP was that we got such an insight into local culture that would have completely passed us by if we had not been with them. For example, whilst we were in Grapel the Schutzenfest was on. This as we were informed by our friends is a gathering of people from the shooting club and they literally travel all around Germany during summer attending the various Schutzenfests (shooting festivals). However, they are apparently more about getting together to drink and be merry! Each age group has its own king and queen ceremony and those who get crowned king and queen for that town have their front lawn decorated in a garland arch. The king and queen are then responsible for paying for all the booze for all the other Schutzenfesters…so I figure you must need to be pretty well off to even want to be the king and the queen!! Some towns, like Grapel, have a communal kitty that accumulates over the year so that the king and queen are not soley responsible for financing the endless drinkathon but not all towns are the same.
We were involved in the preparation of the street for the Schutzenfest. JP, Damien and I went to the neighbour’s house where the women assembled floral arrangements on poles and the men later went and placed them in the ground along the street. Whilst all this preparation was going on, there was a reasonable amount of drinking. I soon had a Radler in hand. This a common drink option in Germany and elsewhere, of beer and lemonade. Basically it is what we call a shandy, though this comes already made in the bottle. But there was also a neighbour wandering around with a bottle of Jagermeister and everyone was having shots from the same glass. Next minute I was being ushered into the garage with the ladies to have some other shot with a preserved plum in the bottom of the glass. Anyway, we left before things got more merry but it was nice to see how everyone in the neighbourhood got together to prepare for the Schutzenfest even though they may not have been participating.
JP explained to Damien and I on the first night that if you come to a new village it is pretty much mandatory that you join a club. He told us with a cheeky grin on his face that he had very cleverly chosen his club because it had but one meeting a year!
One of the other “insider’s knowledge” experiences was when Helga took us to have a meal of matjes. These are a type of herring that apparently are only in season for about 6-8 weeks of the year. This just so happened to be when we were in Grapel so Helga took us out for lunch to a restaurant to sample these young matjes. We had originally planned to go to a town very near the Danish border but the weather was bad that day and instead we ended up at a restaurant with the dubious name of Fahrkrug!
The matjes were delicious! And might I add, totally not what I expected! They were raw and had been marinated. After this I had a bit of a matjes love affair and ate them elsewhere during our travels south through Germany. The restaurant in Osten where we dined overlooked one of the few remaining transporter bridges left in the world. We went for a “joy” ride (if this tame event can be described thus!) on the transporter bridge. It is a unique design in that the platform you ride to get to the other side of the river is suspended in the air from the metal frame that spans both sides of the river.
Whilst I am on the topic of food I may as well throw in a few of the foodie things that I enjoyed during our time in Grapel. It soon became apparent to Damien and I that both breakfast and dinner were meals mostly based around eating bread, meats, cheese (and honey or jam at breaky). Lunch is the main meal of the day. Damien and I both went slightly overboard on our daily meat, cheese and bread quota I am sure but when everyday a new myriad of delights were presented on the table we were unable to resist! Some of the more unusual options we dined on were sliced horse meat and blood wurst. We also got to enjoy some of Helga’s home made delights, a strawberry jam that she infused with the white flowers from her garden. Simply delicious! And then one night we were introduced to the decadent eierlikor! Yummo! This I made sure I learnt how to cook and Helga gave me a demo one afternoon on some wizzbang German device she owns and which Damien and I are very keen to purchase when we get back home. Eirlikor is basically alcohol mixed with cream, sugar, vanilla and eggs and it is damn fine! It is pretty much alcoholic custard. What’s not to like?! Our supply that Helga and I made together is getting low…it has been a lovely treat whilst caravaning around Europe :)
Before I get too carried away and write anymore about our time in Grapel (as Damien and I are now about a month behind…whoops) I have to mention the evening that JP gave us a demo of some of the many instruments he owns. For someone who is as much of a music lover as I am it is disappointing that I have no natural music ability to speak of, despite many years of organ lessons! Thus it was also somewhat embarrassing to lamely twang a bango or pretend to elegantly play a harp. But hey, at least I can say I played a harp. Such a beautiful instrument. JP told Damien and I that he is a folk story teller and that he does performances where he tells his stories with the accompaniment of the harp as he feels the music conveys the feeling of the tale. I wanted to ask JP to tell us such a story as I am already well aware of his talent in this area…maybe I shall when we get back to Grapel….