The Frugal Traveler Returns to Germany, Now as a Citizen


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A view from the castle Schloss HohenTübingen, which was built around 1050.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

The houses along Christophstrasse were shuttered for the night by the time I walked hungrily by, heading for some schnitzel and spätzle on my first night in Tübingen, a town of about 90,000 tucked in the southwest corner of Germany. I had chosen the place, Gaststätte Herzog Ulrich, mostly because it was across the river — far from the idyllic and restaurant-clogged medieval center of this university town an hour by train from Stuttgart, and thus likely to offer more bang for the euro.

I would soon be enjoying the homey ordinariness of the restaurant, where Swabian regional specialties came with tall beers at reasonable prices, alongside customers of all stripes, a few whiling away the evening playing the board game Go. But before that, I had an intersection — and an identity crisis — to get through.

A couple stood at the corner of Christophstrasse and Hechinger Strasse as I approached, waiting patiently for the light to change. With no headlights visible in any direction, my American side urged me to proceed. But my German self balked, having witnessed extraordinary acts of pedestrian obedience in the 12 hours since I had arrived in the country. In the end, I waited. Very impatiently.

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A walk down the cobblestone streets of Tubingen.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

My German side, it should be noted, was a novice. Two weeks earlier, at a simple, thoughtful ceremony at the German consulate near the United Nations in New York, I was among a small crowd of Jewish New Yorkers who had been handed a certificate of German citizenship. (At least I assume that’s what it was; could someone plug Einbürgerungsurkunde into Google Translate?)

Almost everyone I met had parents or grandparents who had crossed the Atlantic after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Between 1935 and 1941, the Third Reich invalidated the passports of German Jews, first selectively, eventually in a worldwide sweep. My dad left Berlin at age 6 in 1936 with a fake Hungarian passport, en route with his family to, eventually, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I’ve known for years that my father, brother, nephews and I were eligible to reclaim German citizenship, but it had never been a priority. For Syrian refugees (and countless other migrants), a European passport would be a godsend; for us it is essentially a luxury, with a few fringe benefits — most notably, for the purposes of this column, no more pricey tourist visas for Argentina, Brazil, India and more — but also, as Brita Wagener, the German consul general, stressed, a touch of historic justice.

“A legal status is restored which was stripped from your family members,” she said, in a sunny room overlooking the East River and the United Nations headquarters. “Whatever your personal motives were, by doing so you support Germany’s commitment to build and preserve a democratic, tolerant and peaceful society, a country so different from the country your family members were forced to leave.”

She urged us to work, study or travel in Germany. I took option No. 3.

Tübingen was, perhaps, an odd choice. But previous trips to Germany had been hasty visits to major cities — during college, Munich with a side trip to Dachau; more recently, Berlin — and I wanted my first experience as a German citizen to be as traditional (or perhaps the word is stereotypical) as possible.

The town had been a day-trip suggestion from a German friend, but I suspected that its relatively untouristed pedestrian streets, half-timbered Gothic buildings and an 11th-century castle — with an infusion of energy and culture from a major university — would serve well as a base. Hedging my bets, I didn’t make reservations, and instead arrived on a late-morning train from Frankfurt via Stuttgart, dropping my bags at the DJH Jugendherberge, or youth hostel, before setting off into town.

The crooked medieval streets of the city center were filled with college students, professors and other townspeople; I imagined it was the sort of place Hansel and Gretel might have gone for college after writing a great essay about overcoming adversity. (Their travails occurred in the Black Forest, not far west.) Amei Ott, the owner of the Airbnb apartment I would move into the next night, aptly called it “a bubble of happiness and perfection.”

Yes, I fled the hostel — which was, it turns out, just outside the bubble. Though a perfectly decent place, it was shockingly expensive: 33.40 euros, or $36.11 at $1.08 to the euro, for a top bunk in a shared room in a dated building with no Wi-Fi. Amei’s apartment was $77 (including fees) a night, only twice the price for a spacious and charming one bedroom in an inoffensively bland low-rise complex a five-minute bike ride into town. (Though, admittedly, it also had no Wi-Fi. Internet access in Tübingen is barely better than it was when Hansel and Gretel would have studied here.)

I rented a great bike, a VSF Fahrradmanufaktur, at a low price, 23 euros for three and a half days, at a friendly shop called FahrRadLaden am Haagtor. It was a perfect (and very common) way to get around town, and also served as a means of getting away on day trips. (More on that next week.)

The first morning, my first stop was to be Market Square, a cobblestone gathering place in front of the 15th-century town hall, for the thrice-weekly market.

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Hoses along the Neckar river.

Credit
Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

But on the way, I dallied a bit; it was prime fall foliage season, and the flaming yellow plane trees along the Neckar River and the startling Christmas-colored ivy on walls stopped me in my tracks. At the market, fruit-sellers, cheesemongers and butchers greeted clients by name and patiently answered all their questions.

I waited (impatiently, my American self again intruding) at a stand specializing in Italian cured meats as the salesman doted on a regular customer, slipping an extra sausage into her bag as she left. But then it was my turn, and he doted on me as well, in English at that. A couple behind me, Thomas and Gute, joined the conversation and passed along an intriguing tip: I could take my sausage and cheese to Weinhaus Beck, a wine shop and restaurant just off the square with an inverse BYOB rule — it was BYOCC, Bring Your Own Charcuterie and Cheese.

Late October in Tübingen may be great for foliage, but it’s too cold for picnicking, so I went and found the couple there. They beckoned me over and we pooled resources, as a waiter brought me a glass of pinot gris, a knife for the sausage and cheese, and a basket of breads including fresh pretzels and pretzel rolls with a pliant crunch and fresh interior that put every American pretzel I’ve ever had to shame. Score one for my German side.

Happy to finally be talking to fellow Germans (albeit in English, since after studying exclusively Romance languages, my linguistic diet is guten-free), I sprang news of my citizenship on them. They responded with polite interest, and not much more — a similar reaction I would get from just about everyone else. Though I’m not sure what I expected, an emotional welcome home? I wondered if these days, active thoughts of German identity were wrapped more in the incoming Syrian refugees; I was told several hundred had settled, at least temporarily, in Tübingen.

My bill came to about 7 euros for two pretzels and that glass of wine; add about 5 more I had paid for cheese and sausage, and I had found myself a great bargain meal. To be clear, you can eat for less in Tübingen, where the student population ensures there is no lack of currywurst and doner kebab stands, which I also tried. The best deal in town is almost certainly the lunch special at Gastätte Hauptbahnhof, literally the Train Station Restaurant, which is no commuter fast-food joint, It has the old wooden look of a cozy bar and a lunch special — two options of a hefty main dish and substantial salad, for 7 or 8 euros.

I have one other restaurant tip, although it’s not exclusively culinary. Amei had recommended Wurstküche (“Sausage Kitchen”) for traditional Swabian food in the old town. The food was fine; I had a 16.90-euro plate of mixed Swabian specialties (heavy dumplings called maultasche, spätzle and lots of pork). But more important, it’s an easy place to impress a date: Approach it from the rear so he or she does not spot the busy front entrance. “Discover” the just-barely-marked back door on Metzgergasse, and lead your companion down so many flights they might suspect you are taking them to a dungeon. Instead, you emerge into a rustic dining room of warm wood tones and quirky décor.

I did a few more things in town, including the required stop at the castle, Schloss HohenTübingen, built around 1050. In 1816, it became part of the university and today is most notable as home to the University of Tübingen Museum, a surprisingly expansive collection of mostly ancient art, best known for its ice age figurines, made locally from the ivory of mammoths and believed to be among the oldest examples of artwork ever found.

And I attended a concert at the university, where the Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra was visiting from the Czech Republic. It was a controversial budget call: 23 euros for an obstructed view seat. I would have been better off sticking with the irrepressible student night life, with good beer and free live music, that keeps the center’s cobblestones clacking until late.

On my last day in town, a Saturday, I dropped off my bike and was walking back home through a park when a soccer ball bounced its way from a small court to my feet. I kicked it back to four kids and a man, who I presumed was the father. He beckoned me over to join the game, kids versus adults — and I had a very fun 30 seconds before I made an awkward pivot and my calf felt as if it had been clocked with a baseball bat. It left me unable to walk. They called for a cab to take me to the hospital.

The boring medical details are that it was a partly torn calf muscle, resulting in swelling and internal bleeding. Learning I would be on a plane the next morning, the emergency room doctors did a blood test that could not rule out clotting and sent me to another facility where a specialist used ultrasound to check for clots. I hobbled out with my leg tightly wrapped and a self-administered injection kit of blood thinner in hand to use the next morning before flying.

To my American side, the extraordinary part was that the hospital admitted me with no more than a name and New York address — no proof of insurance whatsoever, no email or phone number, no mention of when a bill would come. The specialized clinic I went to for the test didn’t even take my name and address — the rather jolly man at the reception desk there said there was no way to enter such a name into the system, and told me to contact the administration the next week.

I had emailed Kevin Wallace, my doctor in New York, to explain what had happened, and when I woke up the next morning he had replied, concerned about the plan. “In the U.S.A.,” he wrote, “we would tend not to use an injectable blood thinner, but tell you to walk regularly on the plane, avoid alcohol, keep hydrated and take an aspirin before the flight.”

My German and American sides were at odds one last time, but with higher stakes than pedestrian etiquette or pretzel dominance. I sided with the advice of my American doctor, revealing either a deep allegiance to the United States — or a deep aversion to stabbing myself in the stomach with a needle.



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