StraelenWalking at places where the walking is boring gives some strange sense of purpose...
July 5th 201, Day 3
I awoke to the sound of a rooster. I thought it was my alarm on the phone, but when I wanted to switch it off, it turned out to be a real one. Soon the church bells started to toll, telling me it was time for my breakfast. I took a nice long and warm shower and pulled a fresh t-shirt on. The breakfast table was set for four persons, but no one was there yet. Again, the quiet and loneliness of this place struck me. As I enjoyed my second ‘’kaiserbrötchen’’, a middle aged woman came in. She sat opposite of me and drank a coffee. I was still shy in talking German and sharing breakfast with a stranger at this small table made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Even asking for the butter was a challenge for me. How insecure I was! How did I imagine going through Europe when I didn’t even dare to ask for the butter?
Gabriele and I were, after a couple of minutes, slowly beginning our conversation about last night. She was impressed by the mass which I only attended for 10 minutes. The music was great, the orchestra played very well, but I had to admit I didn’t understand any of words the priest told. ‘’I am coming here once or twice a year’’, Gabriele told me. ‘’I just hang around the Chapel of Grace all day, go into church to pray and visit some services. My daily life is so hectic, I need to come here to get in my own power again. The place carries great power, God is present here.’’ As we were talking about what this power was, and what it brought her, a nun came in. Gabriela immediately started to pour in coffee for her and bringing her bread and cheese. I had no idea how to behave in this situation. How does one interact with an elderly German nun who was starting to get deaf and did not really understand my weird accent? Soon I lost the topic of the conversation as the two women started to recap the service of yesterday. I excused myself and packed my stuff.
I bought some amulets in town for people at home. My grandma gave me a small silver amulet from Kevelaer when I left and I thought it a good idea to buy her one in return. I bought four packages with the amulets of Mother Mary of Kevelaer and St. Christopher carrying the text ’Gott schütze dich’ (May God protect you). I send one to grandma two days later, never to arrive. I send three to the family of Anouk, one for her, one for her parents and one for her grandma. I still felt very much connected to them and wanted them to know I was thinking about them. I missed being around them. Would I ever see them again?
Once I started my way towards Straelen, rain started to fall. It was a warm shower and not too bad to walk through. I walked along the German – Dutch border where greenhouses and plantations where only interspersed by cornfields and farms. Rows and rows of small conifers growing on root cloth with no soil to see. ‘If this is German’s nature, it’s going to be a boring walk’ I thought. We must have these fields in Holland as well, I was just 10km from the border, but for me this was Germany at the moment. I was walking at places where no one ever really walks. Although I was walking the ‘Jakobsweg’, people whom I passed looked at me as if I didn’t belong here. But instead of feeling uncomfortable, it made me feel like a real traveler. Walking at places where the walking is boring and unusual gives some strange sense of purpose to the walk. The walk I was doing was not just to have a good time, fresh air and have nice views like on a Sunday afternoon walk. No, I had a goal to reach and this road, between the greenhouses and cornfields, was taking me there. I needed to walk this road, regardless of the surroundings. The boredom of the place had a function.
After a day of showers and little sunshine I arrived in Straelen around half past 3. The town struck me as a normal German village. Brick houses with spacious gardens and two cars on the porch and German flags everywhere. I couldn’t remember the Germans being so nationalistic and wondered what this all meant. What kind of people live here right at the border who display so much national pride. It took me a while to remember the World Cup football was being played.
When I crossed the first street of the small village I stumbled upon some real West-German culture. I heard a fanfare coming down the street. A house at the T-end was decorated with an arc of flowers and flags and was clearly the location for a grand feast. The real meaning of the gathering was unknown to me, but I was captivated by this clearly old tradition and decided to join the small crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk. The celebration was of a Schützenverein (marksmen club) which had a party at their leaders house. Men and women were dressed in traditional costumes with pheasant feathers on their hats. The leader distinguished himself from the rest by the length of his feathers and the size of his Napoleon-shaped hat. The fanfare, coming from the street opposite to the house turned right while the flag bearers which came behind them, continued their pace towards the front door where they put their flags against the door post and went inside. As one after another entered the house, I wondered where all the people went. It seemed there was no end to the group and the old and sun-bleached flags piled up against both sides of the door. The house was big, but not that big. After half an hour, the fanfare stopped playing and started drinking. Time for me to head into the city center to find a place to eat and drink. It was Saturday afternoon 4pm. A time on which at home terraces and pubs would be filled to the rim. Here, I saw no one on the market square. All the bars were empty and no one was enjoying a fine German beer on the terrace. Shops were closed and streets empty, it felt like Sunday morning almost. I expected more of the Germans, at least a place where a tired wanderer could have a beer and something to eat. Eventually I found a place in the far corner of the square. I set myself on a wet chair outside and ordered a coke.
It still feels weird to go somewhere alone. To just sit all by myself on a terrace and drink something. The drinking is a social activity which from now on I had to do all by myself. So if there are people somewhere to just watch or listen to, the terrace becomes appealing immediately, even if it’s just elderly occupying the seats, like now. I planned on staying here till 6, watch the football game of Holland against Costa Rica and then retreat into the woods to pitch my tent. The waitress was in a good mood and talked me into having something to eat. Since the bar was a real German one, the only thing they served was ‘Schnitzel’. At first I declined, I was a vegetarian after all. But after another hour I was growing hungry and set myself inside to write in my diary. I ordered a Schnitzel with mushroom sauce and tomatoes. As I sat waiting, two young girls came in to start their shift and at the same time four men started hang around the bar. They were too old for the girls, but still did their best to attract the girls’ attention. It was a bit of shaming sight.
The schnitzel was huge and tasty. It was not as dry as they used to be, but that was what I liked about it. I would struggle a lot on the road, and did not feel like to make a scene about my vegetarian lifestyle. So from this point on, I would eat whatever was available to me. When the clock pointed six, there was not football to be seen. Turned out the Dutch team would not play until 10. There was no point in waiting that long, I had a tent to pitch. So I paid for food and drinks and headed outside. As I was about to say goodbye to the other waitress, having some food herself outside, rain started to pour. It really was like the heaven coming down, and when the thunder started to roar, I knew it made no sense to walk. The waitress, Nicole, a friend of hers and an elderly couple were sharing a table and ordered me a coke. I was forced to speak German with my new hosts and it went surprisingly well. Where was I going to? Why did I walk? What was I going to do when in Istanbul? Was I not afraid? The answers on these questions would come more easily in the weeks ahead as these were normally the only things I had to tell people. The rain didn’t stop and they ordered me a second and third coke. Where was I going to sleep tonight, Nicole asked. ‘’Well, I have a tent with me so I’ll just walk into the woods and find a place to pitch it.’’ ‘’But it is raining and thundering, you cannot sleep in your tent tonight’’, Nicole said. ‘’You just cannot, it is too dangerous, I will not let you sleep in your tent tonight. If you want, you can stay on my couch.’’ And so it happened. Around 9 me and Nicole crossed the square and went to her apartment. She just moved here after a rough period in her life. She told me she had had a hard time the last year and started all over here in Straelen, a new life as it were, with new adventures and new people to surround her. Having a stranger over would fit in perfectly, although she was a bit hesitant. She never did anything like this before, offering a complete and utter stranger a place to sleep. I was as nervous as she was, as I was never invited like this before and did not really know what to expect. But this was what I wanted to happen, this was part of the adventure as I pictured it, so I was more than happy that this would happen on my third night already. Of the first three nights, I slept in my tent only once. Maybe I didn’t really need the thing at all, I thought. The couch was big and comfortable. The rest of the house was clean and did not show a lot of the one living in it. No relics of faraway places, no pictures of lost family members and dirty dishes in the sink. All was new and matched together well. Nicole was tired from the whole day of work, so she went to bed quite early, leaving me to watch the game by myself. I made it till the 75th minute and fell asleep as well.