"Zwei Personen?" The older woman across the desk from us was peering over the top of her glasses, a kindly yet puzzled look on her face.*
We were in Sasbachwalden, a tiny village at the edge of the Black Forest of Germany, only a dozen or so miles from the Rhine River. This was the first stop on a cycling trip that Mark and I took in September 2012. From the Black Forest, we would go on to the French Alps and Provence before joining a cycling tour group in Corsica. A couple of days before, Mark and I had landed in Paris and had then spent the weekend there before picking up our rental car and heading for Germany.
Sasbachwalden was my idea. Some of my ancestors were from there, and for years I had wanted to visit. So we had worked out a plan: we would stay one night in Sasbachwalden, then cycle in the Black Forest, then spend the following night in southern Baden in a village where some of Mark's ancestors were from.
I had picked up some German over the years, but this consisted primarily of being able to read genealogical terms. I definitely couldn't speak it. But I thought it prudent to learn at least one phrase before we arrived in Germany: "Ich habe ein Zimmer reserviert"(I have reserved a room). As we drove through Champagne and Lorraine, I occasionally practiced the phrase. I'm glad I did.
We had reserved a room online at what looked to be a very charming place, quintessentially German, über quaint, the Hotel Engel Gasthaus (pictured above). Thanks to our car's GPS, we drove directly to Sasbachwalden - which had been previously selected as one of Germany's most beautiful villages - and we couldn't miss the Hotel Engel, partly because there is only one main street in Sasbachwalden that climbs uphill toward the Black Forest.
As we stood on the main street and looked around, it was difficult to know where to start taking pictures. Every house was quaint. In all directions, we could see hills planted with vineyards and trees.
We parked across the street from the inn and walked up to what appeared to be the door, but it was locked. We looked around but didn't see any other way to enter. This was when we were first confronted with the language barrier. No one there, we were to realize, spoke English. It was baffling.
Finally, after some minutes of us looking around in bewilderment, walking around the inn to see if there was another door, some women who were sitting across the street said (we surmised, since they were speaking in German) that we needed to ring the buzzer next to the door. We did so, and after a few rings, a woman's voice came through the speaker. I then uttered the line I had been practicing since leaving Paris: "Ich habe ein Zimmer reserviert." The woman's voice said something, then was gone.
Now we were even more bewildered. We waited a couple of minutes. Nothing happened. No one appeared. I rang again. No answer. Then, across the street, we saw a woman walking towards us with keys in her hand. She had come to let us in.
We managed to get through the formalities of "checking in," which turned out to be her simply finding our name on her list. She pointed to my name and asked for confirmation that that was me. "Yes." "Zwei person?" she queried (two people). "Da," I replied, then realizing that was Russian, not German, I added, "Ya." Then, once again, for emphasis, she said, "Zwei," holding up two fingers. "Ya" I again answered in my very best German.
"Hmmm," she replied. She pointed to my name again and said something I didn't even come close to understanding. I imagined that she was trying to do the mental gymnastics to understand why two men were checking into a room with only one bed. "Hmmm."
Finally, she beckoned us upstairs and unlocked our (very comfortable) room for us. (By then, we had realized that, the high season being over, the place wasn't opened until guests arrived in the evening. We, as it turns out, were the first ones there that day.) She went in, indicated the bed and again said, more emphatically, "Zwei person." "Ya," I replied, nodding. Apparently satisfied that no mistake had been made, she smiled somewhat nervously and left.
Welcome to Germany!
*This post was originally published in February 2013 on one of my former blogs, now closed.