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Partial to Home: Cultural exchange

 

Birney Imes

 

 

KREIENSEN, GERMANY - My friend Axel and I were standing at Track 2 one day last week waiting for the 7:33 a.m. train to Hannover when he shouted greetings to someone across the way. 

 

"He's an Elvis impersonator," Axel said. "He's quite good." 

 

The man joined us at trackside, and the two Germans began an animated conversation. This particular Elvis is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, has a stocky build, and on this cool morning, was wearing battered black jeans, black Velcro jogging shoes and a medium blue polo shirt with a small white insignia bearing silhouettes of two women seated back-to-back like you see on car tags sold in truck stops. 

 

The cooler air offered welcome respite from a heat wave that has taken up residence across Northern Europe this summer. The effects of global warming have become tangible with record high temperatures, forest fires and crop failures. Everywhere you go here, people are complaining about the hot weather. 

 

I mentioned we sometimes go to a restaurant in Tupelo near the hardware store where Mama Gladys bought her son his first guitar. The impersonator, who visited Tupelo 20 years ago on an Elvis tour, nodded knowingly and provided detail to the story I'd forgotten. 

 

Wherever you go in the world, there is always Elvis. 

 

As we talked, cargo trains roared by less than eight feet away. Before Elvis showed up, Axel was reminiscing about his days as a postal worker, standing on this same platform trying to keep warm on cold winter nights. When the mail train was running late, he and his co-workers would take refuge in the all-night Greek cafe once across the way in the now-dilapidated village station and drink ouzo. 

 

The day before we drove into the former East Germany to a mountaintop museum that houses a giant painting commissioned by the East German government in the mid-70s. The cyclorama depicts a key battle during the German Peasants' War in the 16th century, and the government viewed it as historical justification for the communist system. 

 

The painting contains more than 3,000 figures, some historical, some allegorical and took 19 years to realize. It appears to be a reliable tourist attraction, if not much of a propaganda tool. Two years after its completion in 1987, the Wall came down, and there was no more East Germany. 

 

The wooded road through the mountains leading to the museum is a popular course for area motorcyclists, who zoomed past on their earth-bound rockets sounding like angry horseflies. 

 

About halfway up the mountain, we came to a stone building the size of a barn with a large blue sign that read Cafe 36. About a dozen motorcycles were parked in a gravel parking lot. Across the lot, smoke drifted from a makeshift snack bar at the edge of a forest. 

 

Bikers and civilians sat at picnic tables under two small pavilions eating mustard covered sausage in a bun and drinking bright green soft drinks. Behind the counter of the snack bar, a white-haired man with a ponytail, who looked to be about 50, was frying bratwurst and steak on a small grill. 

 

I ordered pea soup, "traditional" German potato salad and a local beer. Axel got bratwurst. While waiting for his food, my friend managed to elicit a lecture from the proprietor about the finer points of Thuringer bratwurst, the local product. To be able to call his product "Original" Thuringer Bratwurst, a butcher must pay 170 Euros and send his sausage to a special laboratory. The German term for this is "Hackfleischverordnung," a combining of the words "chopped," "meat" and "regulation."  

 

We took a seat among the bikers under one of the shelters. A fellow across from us was wearing a T-shirt that said something about "track and field." Europeans are fond of T-shirts heralding sports programs of non-existent U.S. universities. Axel asked if he'd ever been to the museum. The man shook his head. "I'd rather be driving these roads on my motorcycle," he said. 

 

I've written about my friend Axel here before. We met in Crawford -- Sugar Hill, to be specific -- 40 years ago when he, hardly more than a kid lost in the blues, was staying there with Big Joe Williams. I was wandering the same roads taking pictures. He's been a family friend since. 

 

When the train pulled in the station at the precise time, I relaxed -- I had a leisurely 13-minute layover in Hannover. So far, so good on this first link in a chain of trains, planes and buses that would take me home to loved ones and my own village on the other side of the planet, just down the road from the birthplace of the king of rock and roll. 

 

Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch. 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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