Würzburg, Germany — And One of Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments
At the time of this writing, I have now been to 51 countries and 45 states in the U.S. To some, that is not a huge number, but to most, I suspect it is quite a bit of travel. As I believe travel, especially abroad, to be enriching, I consider 51 countries to be a good start.
Of all the countries I’ve visited, most were short trips for work or as a tourist. Two of these countries, however, stand out as second homes. I actually lived in Korea for a total of 8 years, and in Germany for 3 years. In addition to the time spent living there, I visited both of them many times for shorter periods. As Germany was my first foreign country, I have a long history and deep affection for Germany and her people.
I recently visited these old stomping grounds again and feelings of nostalgia lead me to share a bit about my first overseas home. I will also share one of my life’s most embarrassing moments. The city I lived in is called Würzburg. In addition to being the home of some fantastic baroque architecture, it is the center of Germany’s Franconian wine country. No doubt, I will later write more about other parts of Germany, but for now, I’ll focus on Würzburg.
I’ve lived in places that eventually grew on me, but very few of them instantly felt like home. Würzburg was different. I still remember very well my awe when first seeing the city. The Marienberg Fortress atop the hill, overlooking the Main (pronounced “mine”) River, and other sites I’ll describe while recounting my first foray into the city.
The Marienberg Fortress is a symbol of Würzburg, owing to its prominent place high above the rest of the town. There are few places in Würzburg where the Marienburg is not easily seen. The Marienburg served as home to the Prince Bishops for nearly 500 years until the construction of the Residenz, which I will describe shortly.
I will use my first experience going out for a German meal as a tool for sharing more about this beautiful city. At my current stage of life and experiences, I am comfortable going just about anywhere and eating almost anything. If I don’t understand the language, I’ll point at something that looks good, and this usually works out pretty well. But I should share that my first time in Germany, I was a very young Second Lieutenant in the Army. I had minimal experience with other cultures and languages. Despite my lack of knowledge or German language ability, after a few days of eating at Burger King, Anthony’s Pizza, and the food court on the Leighton Barracks Army base, I was ready to venture out. But keep my youth and inexperience in mind, it is relevant to the rest of the story.
When leaving the main gate of Leighton Barracks, the main street is called Rottendorfer Straße, and this leads directly to the center of town. For those who don’t know this, a point on the German language. The “ß” in the word straße is called an eszett or scharfes S, and it sounds like a strong letter S. So, the word straße sounds like “strasseh”. To me, a ß looked at the time rather like a “B,” so I assumed this word sounded more like “strab”, or possibly “strabe”. Like my youth and inexperience, keep this point of German spelling in mind, again, it is relevant to the end of the story.
Along Rottendorfer Straße I passed several restaurants that I later learned were frankly amazing. However, I was hesitant to go inside any of them to sit down and eat. My initial hesitation was due to my lack of knowledge about German food or language. Every restaurant had a menu outside by the front door. But there were no photos, and I didn’t yet know what any of the items were.
At one point I actually did go inside a restaurant only to be greeted by several of the patrons with a hearty “grüß Gott!” I didn’t know at the time that this common greeting, especially in Southern Germany and parts of Austria, means something like “may God greet you.” All I knew at the time was that people were saying something to me I didn’t understand, and I was uncomfortable being the target of attention from people I didn’t know.
So, I kept walking.
Near the end of Rottendorfer Straße I passed what to that time may have been the most beautiful building I had ever seen. It still ranks up near the top of my favorite architectural sites. The Residenz, or Prince Bishops Palace is one of the most beautiful Baroque palaces in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the mid 1700s and designed principally by Balthasar Neumann, this palace is surrounded on three sides by some of the most amazing gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Just past the Residenz, the next amazing site I came across was the Alte Mainbrüke, or Old Main Bridge. This beautiful bridge, dating back about 500 years, is often called the saints bridge by tourists owing to the statues of saints (and other historical figures) along its length. Walking across the bridge is one of the most beautiful things to do in this city or any other.
There are so many other things to see in Würzburg. Museums, churches, the Marktplatz, and many other sites are worth the visit. But there is a story to finish about my first German meal.
After passing the sights mentioned so far, I had been walking for a couple of hours and was getting quite hungry. However, owing to the previously mentioned lack of German language skills and my shyness, I was ashamed to admit defeat. I had decided to go back to the base and eat at Burger King (again). But there was a small problem. I had managed to get lost and wasn’t sure how to get back to the base. I knew I would be able to find it but didn’t know how long that would take, and I was hungry.
Near the city center, I rounded a corner and saw a familiar sight — the ubiquitous “golden arches” of McDonald’s. Yes, I decided to eat at McDonald’s. Don’t judge me! I rationalized that this was a partial victory. Was it a traditional German meal? No. But it was a McDonald’s in Germany, staffed with German people, and it wasn’t on the Army base and wasn’t Burger King or Anthony’s pizza.
Once inside, I stayed back from the counter to check out the menu. The first thing I noticed was the word “hamburger” and realized I could do this! I also saw “cola,” and beside a photo of french fries, I saw the word “pommes frittes”. I didn’t know at the time that this was pronounced more like “pom frit” than how it appeared to me phonetically but hold that thought. I also noticed that the cheapest of these items were listed as “kliene”. I assumed that must be a small and the most expensive of these were listed as “groß,” so that must mean large.
At this juncture, a couple of points should be made. First, remember that I still thought the “ß” sounded like a B, so to ask for large size of an item I assumed I should ask for a “grob”. Also, there is an annoying habit of the quintessential ugly American that I have been guilty of. A common reaction when you don’t speak another language is to speak English very loudly. It is as if the person you are talking to is deaf rather than German in this case.
When it was time to step up and order the nice lady at the counter asked something in German which I don’t remember but surely must have been “what would you like?” or some version of typical McDonald’s greeting. To compensate for not speaking German, in addition to speaking very loudly, I used hand signals. “I want two hamburgers!” I exclaimed while holding up two fingers toward the employee. She nodded politely without saying a word or changing her expression. “I want one GROB POMM-ES FRITT-ES,” I nearly shouted, again while holding up the requisite digit to indicate the number one. Still, she nodded politely. Finally, I said that I wanted one GROB cola!”, once again holding up my index finger.
The lady waited politely, looking at me to see if there was anything else I wanted. When it was clear I had completed my order, she nearly yelled, in perfect English, “WILL THAT BE FOR HERE?”, while pointing downward, “OR TO GO?”, while pointing past me to the exit. Nearly everyone in the McDonald’s erupted in laughter. And I can only imagine how many shades of red my face must have turned before I could speak again. I looked around and asked, “you all speak English?” Several of them replied, “of course”, between laughter.
I responded that it was intended for here, but now it is to go. No way was I going to stay there after making such a scene. I made my way back to base while eating my hamburgers, and GROB pomm-es fritt-es while drinking my GROB cola. What a way to start my life of travel!