Aside from tons of beautiful pictures, I'm left with the experiences that photos just can't do justice. I love meeting people. I love talking to them and learning their stories.
I learned something about myself, however. I'm not great at taking pictures of people that I meet in the moments that I meet them.
I feel overly self conscious in stopping them in the moment and saying, "Hey, can I take your picture". Sadly, the moments pass leaving me with just the grand memories and nothing else to show ... so here are my stories ... with our without the pictures.
Beginning with hugging my kids and sinking into the back seat luxury of a car and driver. Just me and Charlotte and a moment to breathe after packing everyone off to our friends, double checking again and again for tickets and passports and baby backpack and international phone ....
Beginning with Sonny .. who was born in New Jersey, served in Vietnam, worked in Germany for a while as an international policeman and then for the railroad in Texas, now living in Denver taking care of his 94 year old mother.
All that in a ride to the airport.
He was awesomely concerned that my grand adventure begin with every need attended.
Baden Baden was a pretty touristy city. But boy, did it speak volumes about the German people. They are pretty serious about everything. Super polite but boy .... seriously serious. And tidy. And precise. And down to business.
And those characteristics are present in every aspect .. driving, landscape, architecture, manners, parenting, relationships, art, you name it. (Newel's heritage is German and it explained SO much :)
We had breakfast at our Baden Baden hotel one morning and entered the dining room with a baby in tow. Stares. Silence. Unexpected wonder. Not unkind ... just unexpected.
The patrons ate in silence, backs to the wall, newspapers flipping or quietly observing.
One such couple sat by the entry at a table scattered with rose petals and a bottle of something special. Expressionlessly, he reached over to pat her hand and went intently back to his croissant. I stifled my humor at their disregard for the pomp being added to whatever they were celebrating.
I headed to the buffet to retrieve my own croissant where a mother assisted two very young and immaculate blond boys standing still as statues, awaiting her instructions. She turned her back and one elbowed the other. He pointed to a basket filled to the brim with individual sized Nutella packets. Both broke into beaming smiles and quickly shoved handfuls into their pockets then returned to their patiently still posture as mother turned her attention back to them.
I did laugh out loud ... which startled all of them. Boys will be boys in any country or culture.
Later in the day, sitting at an outdoor cafe, I casually observed those crossing the square. Their dress. Their mannerism. Their posture and poise.
I felt a more slouchy American than not. Perhaps I could use a little polish :)
I like tourism but really prefer a cultural experience, so Newel and I headed out into the countryside.
Where we observed tidy yards, clean streets and tailored lives. We passed several homes where residents worked in their yards sporting full sweater, hat, cravat and cane. Classic.
We ate a little lunch at a restaurant across from a bus stop where a group of very young (kindergarten/first grade aged) children sat with backpacks on, awaiting public bus transportation, unsupervised. We were impressed as they waited, talking and playing hand games right on the busy corner. A stark contrast to mother hovered children of our communities.
One child ran across the street to the market, emerged with a sack of licorice in hand and returning to the group, passed the sack around, sharing and then passed it around again.
The bus arrived and they all entered and were off and away.
No parental overbearing. A less fear-based society. I'm blaming Oprah for that American trend .. and perhaps desensitizing media.
In Bavaria, awaiting the guided tour of Castle Neuschwanstein, we stood in a crowd of tourists all speaking in foreign tones. They were polite, subdued, dressed with class. A woman joined our group with more of a "Hollywood" flair and if her manner of dress didn't mark her as an American, her language certainly did. A striking contrast to the natives around us.
Dinner later found us in the Alps, sharing a table in an over crowded pub with a German couple headed to scuba dive mountain lakes. Retired and having raised two children, they were shocked by our parentage of seven. I left with a feeling that the people of the world are generally and genuinely good, even in the remotest of places.
As night fell, we searched for a reported Bed and Breakfast which turned out to be little more than a local resident's home. Beautiful. And humble.
Oh, how I wish I had a picture of Walter. Old and toothless Walter, speaking not a word of English. Proudly showing me the pictures of his children, Andy, Petra, and Monica, as they hung on his walls. Pleased as punch, uncovering a breakfast of cheese and homemade bread before nodding and disappearing into the separate kitchen. Clearing our empty plates to the kitchen, we found him grinding tiny apples from his backyard tree, making juice for us. His kitchen, warmed by a wood stove supplying heat to the house by boiler. His life, supplied by the means at hand.
Andy dropped in for an early Saturday morning visit to his father. A teacher in the next village over, he was hospitable and polite as well as curious to discuss American vs. Austrian ways while practicing his schooled English.
He did not know anyone who had ever been to America.
Walter hugged us as we left. He cooed and tickled Charlotte. Apparently Austrians posses the affection Germans lack. We never passed a word of English but retain a feeling of slight kinship.
No better way to enjoy the early morning air in the heart of the Alps than to join a walking club. But don't forget your pretzels. And an a.m. beer might ease the pain.
Passing though a town on the other side of the Alps, we saw our first pickup truck since leaving home. We watched a group of young men clamber to the railing of a restaurant to gawk at the passing of a Ford Mustang in the street below. Funny to observe the European draw to all things American.
We stopped for a break at an area gas station en route to Bolzano, Italy. The lines for the bathroom "pay toilet" were long and one mother instructed her young son to relieve himself down in the grape field below. We had a good laugh about the origins of cheaper wines :)
These two cute boys were sending their hot wheel cars racing down the cobblestone street at full speed as they yelled, "Gas, gas, gas, gas." over the noise of the crowd. They didn't understand my English but I determined the language of "boy" to be universal as I certainly understood them and their beaming excitement.
Our Bolzano hotel villa had hot water that Walter's humble abode lacked so I thoroughly enjoyed a much needed hair wash. And then blew the hotel fuse box with my high powered American hair dryer. In fifty years they'd never had Americans stay. Or so they said. Glad I could set the standard.
Repacking our car in the morning, we conversed with a cute family on holiday, parked next to us. They asked where we were from. America, we said .. Colorado, more specifically. The father grinned and showed us his coat lapel jacket pin proclaiming, "Vail, CO, Best Snow on Earth." My previous evening's electrical malfunction turned to instant celebrity.
Perhaps the cultural highlight for us, was our visit to the Bolzano, Italy LDS branch. A tiny gathering of people meeting in an office building above the most incredibly smelling pizzeria. Not a good combination with fast Sundays, I'd bet.
The people were excited to welcome us.
And eager to prove that our church is consistent the world over ...
as indicated by this common request by bishops and branch presidents everywhere, slipped to us halfway through the meeting by a cute little deacon ...
With the exception of the need for a translator.
(I'm putting this audio recording of the sacrament hymn that I made for my kids right here for storage. Same song, different words :)
We were invited to stay for a light luncheon following meetings and loved the opportunity to visit with the members. I begged for authentic recipes from the relief society sister's potluck dishes.
We were asked time and again if we knew Thomas S. Monson .. were we in the same ward? ... as was their perception. We assured them, we knew him just as they did :)
We inquired of them about the massive apple crops surrounding the area. One brother told us that the following weeks allowed harvesting by the residents for personal use. His family would gather nearly 300 kilograms of apples. That's an awful lot of apples, we remarked and asked what his family would do with so many.
"Juice, sauce .. and how you say .. food storage!" he said with a grin as we once again laughed at similarities, church wide.
The members talked in great excitement of the building of the Rome temple just two hours away from them. It put into perspective our Denver temple and the ease of it's thirty minute drive from our doorstep.
I sat through lunch in conversation with Katerina, the branch president's wife. Their family had only been a part of this particular branch for a little less than a year. They'd been members in a much smaller gathering two hours away. When her husband had been asked to be the president of this branch, church leaders had requested that they move to this area. It had been hard. Their two daughters, then 9 and 11, had three other good friends in the primary age group who they loathed to leave.
But move they did, and now this particular branch had grown to having 15 youth. As parents, they foresaw a strength in numbers that their newly turned 12 year old daughter would need for her teenage years.
I commented to Katerina, how beautiful I thought the people, most especially the youth. How classy and elegant and polished and refined and un-entitled. I told her it must be a wonderful place to raise young people.
She smiled and spoke of the difficulties to live as church members refraining from alcoholic drinks, in a culture where wine production is more than a way of life, but a definition of nationality.
I conversed later with my own teenage children about the perception of "hard things". That choosing to dress modestly or use clean language or refrain from inappropriate literature or media, may seem socially hard at times but not nearly as difficult as setting yourself apart as vastly culturally different from a heritage passed down for generations.
As Katerina kissed each of my cheeks and I hugged her tightly, I expressed my wish to return with my children to see and experience this world of hers. We felt nearly related.
With that, Newel and I turned our noses back toward the airport ... and talked and talked and talked about all that we'd seen, heard, and done and the impressions it left.
And those are our stories. In a few short days, what felt like a lifetime.