In Which I Depend Upon The Kindness of Strangers

On Writing Travel

Me & Blanche Dubois.  Okay. We’re not quite the same.

What a strange and fascinating day.  I’m researching the Nuremberg trials for a long piece I’ve promised to an editor friend of mine.  The story takes place at the Trials. I already wrote a piece of it, but didn’t like what I had done because I had no real sense of the setting (to me) in the story.


Here’s the thing.  The Palace of Justice (yep, that’s what it’s called) is still the courthouse of Nuremberg.  And they’ve been remodeling Courtroom 600 for the past year or so.  My guidebooks said I couldn’t go in; the hotel said I couldn’t go in; everyone said I couldn’t go in.  But, I asked, I can go into the courthouse itself, right?  The answer to that was yes.

It’s some distance from my hotel–too far to walk.  I could take the underground, but then I’d miss the surrounding neighborhood. And the bus tour took me past historical markers I didn’t want to see.

So I walked to the taxi stand near my hotel, and asked the first driver if he spoke English.  He did (a little, he said in German–no, I will not try to spell that).  I explained what I wanted, then I asked him to tell me about Nuremberg from his point of view as he drove.  Fascinating.  Lifelong resident here.  He was happy I was going to the Palace of Justice because “English Speaking Tourists usually go to the former Nazi Parade Grounds and sieg heil! (Nazi salute).”  He explained the area, and was generally fascinating–more for my story than for here.

When we got to the Palace of Justice, I paid him and added a lot extra for “the tour.”  He hopped out of the cab, walked up to the guards at the courthouse and told them to help me get home.  He showed me where the Underground was and how to use that if I wanted, and then made sure (again) that the guards would help.  Then he waved and drove off.

Nice man.

I went inside, was told I could see Courtroom 600 at 3 p.m. The courtroom is in use–as a courtroom–and had a trial this afternoon.  So I asked I could just wander (it being 11 a.m) and look around.  I could and I did.  I discovered a lovely hidden garden just in the courtyard of the courthouse.  And here’s where I’ll depend on you guys. This plant is everywhere in Nuremberg (and all over that garden).  Anyone know what it is?

I wandered around a bit and learned many things I couldn’t get from books.  Like how that courthouse echoes.  The lovely little garden that’s been there from the beginning.  How utterly huge the entire building is.

I spoke to a minister from Kentucky who was there to see the courtroom. I saw some German tourists scream at the poor guy at the desk when he wouldn’t let them into the room (“But we are making a documentary! We only have today!”).  I watched some poor sap consult with his attorney and get bad news.

Then I saw an open door.  Into Courtroom 600.  A young man was fixing the sound system, preparing it for the trial.  I peered in, expecting to do no more, but he said, “You want to see?” and let me in.  I looked around for a good ten minutes–and was stunned at how small that room is. When events of historic magnitude happen somewhere, I always expect the place to be bigger. But it’s not that wide. The defendants would have been close enough to touch.  Amazing stuff, amazing design, and another very nice man.

I left quickly–not wanting to get him in trouble–and went around to the main doors of the courtroom to photograph them.  A kindly German-speaking guard asked me if I was part of the trial.  I said no. Then he asked “Tourist?” I nodded.  And he let me in for five minutes.  This time, the lights were on.  I took more pictures. Then the defendent arrived and another guard said to me in heavily accented English, “Your time is up” and ushered me out the door.  I got to thank the German-speaking guard, though, who was so very thoughtful.

I stayed another half hour, looking at more areas, studying detail.  I took pictures and video of strange things, like floor tiles.

Then I decided to walk to the Underground.  As I came in, I asked an older man smoking a cigarette if this was the way to the 1 train.  He said yes, then held up a finger and babbled at me in German (actually, he was probably very clear.  Just not to me.)  I told him my German was not good, and that I couldn’t understand.  He spoke again, slower, told me that I was in the right place.  Then I pulled out 5 Euros and asked where I could get change.  He repeated the rapid German that I did not understand, then mimed putting my money away.  (I figured he thought I shouldn’t wave money around.) He indicated that I should follow him into the Underground proper.  Stupid me, I thought he was showing me where the ticket machine was.  (I should say that there were a lot of people around and in no way would I have followed him somewhere alone.  He led me to an area with more people.)

Instead of taking me to the machine, he walked through the turnstile and indicated I should come–buying my ticket himself with his own card!  He then got me on the train (which he also took), and made sure I got off on the right stop. (He kept going.)

I’ve had a lot of help on this trip, but mostly from people in service professions who are paid to be nice to tourists–hotel employees, waiters, people at the various airports/train stations.  But this was different. These folks went out of their way to help me get the information I needed, or in the case of that nice man at the Underground, just to help a befuddled American get to another part of the city.

Really pleasant.  What a nice day I’m having.

16 thoughts on “In Which I Depend Upon The Kindness of Strangers

  1. Hey, I’m from Bremen as well.

    The Bremen accent is pretty close to standard high German (the closest is actually Hannover). The South German accents are quite different, but so is the Saxonian accent. Though there’s always the possibility that people toned down their accent for your benefit. Saxonians are generally more willing to tone down their accent than Bavarians or Swabians, because the Saxonian accent has a lower social prestige, because it’s very recognizably Eastern. For a while, every second country bumpkin character in a British or American film would speak with a Saxonian accent, when dubbed into German.

    1. Thanks for clarifying, Cora. I was wondering why I had no issues with the Leipzig accent. Although several people I encountered on the street didn’t tone down their accent. They were just being helpful. 🙂

  2. The people of Nuremberg do tend to have a notable accent, but then so do the people of Leipzig, so I’m surprised you found them much easier to deal with. Or was your family from Saxonia by any chance?

    1. My mother’s people were from Bremen. I don’t know where the others were from. But the Leipzig accent is understandable to me. And I really can’t understand the Nuremberg one. Amazing the difference!

  3. I wrote that memoir on my return. It won first place, but not first prize, at the Mountaineer’s “Miles from Nowhere” publishing competition. “At the publisher’s discretion.” He determined none of the entries that year were actually viable for printing. I only found out I made 1st place through the kindness of a stranger. I tried to place it for a while and finally filed it away as being too out of date. Only recently (about 3 weeks ago) did I decide that 17 years in the past matters less then all of the skills I’ve improved in story-telling. Now, as soon as I can dig out from under, I’m going to redraft and try again. And if it doesn’t sell, I’ll self-pub.

    One further thought on tourists (though I could go on at length). I broke them down into 3 classes: tourists (the bus-delivered, checkbox-driven, don’t-touch-the-natives crowd), backpackers (in 1993 the young, interested-in-the-nearest-bungee jump-and-the-nearest-pub crowd, always with a Lonely Planet Guide clutched in hand. I watch a couple of them stand in the middle of a splendid food court in Cairns, Australia, who then looked in the LP for where to eat. They walked past Greek, Indian, Japanese and went to McDonald’s to see the LP-noted “slightly different menu”), the travelers (we were few and far between, but we learned to pick each other out in any crowd).

    I ended up in August in Paris, but I found a way to win the irascible Parisians over quickly. First, I started any conversation with my 100 or so words of hideous French (that got them most of the way), then I mentioned that I was touring the world by bicycle (I rapidly discerned that “bicycle” is an incredibly magic word to the French and it opened many a door).

    1. Sounds good, Matt. You should redraft. I can’t wait to read it. I love your tourist breakdown. 🙂 And yes, speaking terrible French opens many doors. Speaking terrible German gets a “What?” response. But terrible French is an ice-breaker. 🙂

  4. Sounds like a great time, Kris.

    Off-hand, I imagine that taxi driver responded with, “Ein bißchen,” unless they use a different response in that area.

    You should try and make it down to Zürich while you’re there, if you really want to be confused. 🙂

  5. That sounds absolutely epic! Like Ilsa, you make me want to travel intensely and fiercely now, and I already felt that, so it’s even more strong of an urge.

    I appreciate all of your observations! English speakers sieg heil in Germany? That’s bizarre. o_O I would have a tiny little less trouble in Germany, I suspect, as I know a small bit of the language. 8)

    1. I know quite a bit of the language, Ryan, but spoken fast and in different accents, it’s tough for me to follow on occasion. A friend warned me that German speakers’ regional accents really differ (like American accents). I knew that, but figured I would have no trouble. I can negotiate my way through Spanish from the accents of Spain to Latin America. But here in Nuremberg, the accent is very different from what I’m used to and they speak faster than I’m used to. I get quite confused. In Leipzig, I had a lot less trouble, but there, the accent sounds like the one I grew up with. (My parents were German speakers, as was my grandmother.)

      Didn’t meant to infect you, though, Ryan. Travel is fun, but hard as well. I do miss home. (And Dean, quite a bit.)

      Thanks for the observation, Matt. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Your point is a good one. The reason I didn’t like Rome was that no one would talk to me. I’d ask a question and they’d look at me like I was covered in bugs and walk away. That’s because tourists in Rome are rude, nasty, and do have a checklist (a long one). Since I live in a tourist town, I know how contemptible the locals find that kind of tourist. (We hate them. I try not to be that way.) I finally got a waiter to talk to me, but it took most of the meal and he kept expressing surprise at how “different’ I was.

      It sounds like you had good angels on your bike trip. I’ve heard bits and pieces of that story. Someday I’d like to hear the whole thing–or better yet, my friend, write it down. I suspect it would be a great memoir. 🙂

  6. The kindness of strangers carried me far on my travels. I can name 100 examples from my 18-month bike trip. After 2 months, when I was so homesick I had given up and was going home at the next airport, a Japanese man gave me a gift I could never return (his name unknown, a day back in my travels before I opened it) that carried me through the next year of doubts. (This desperately poor desk clerk gave me 5000Y, about $50, in an envelope that I didn’t open until I was squatting in a muddy ditch to get out of the piercing wind & freezing rain.) The next day, another invited to stay in his workshop because it was still raining.

    I think it is because I, and you, don’t travel as tourists, people with checklists in their head. We approach each place with genuine interest, with genuine care, and with a little respect. The kindness of strangers carried me around the world on a bicycle, I’m glad that it is carrying you through Nuremburg.

  7. Ok its not Catalpa its Brugmansia also called Angel’s Trumpets …

    Brugmansia is a genus of seven species of flowering plants in the family Solanaceae, native to subtropical regions of South America, along the Andes from Colombia to northern Chile, and also in southeastern Brazil. They are known as Angel’s Trumpets …

    1. You guys found it. I looked at the Wiki link and that’s the plant. I must say, this part of the description is creepy:
      “All parts of Brugmansia plants contain dangerous levels of poison and may be fatal if ingested by humans or animals, including livestock and pets. Contact with the eyes can cause pupil diliation (mydriasis) or unequal pupil size (anisocoria).[3] Some municipalities prohibit the purchase, sale, or cultivation of Brugmansia plants.[1]”…considering this is at a courthouse. A plant that you can poison someone with? Near a jail? Really?

      The plant sure is pretty though.

      Glad to have inspired you to travel, Ilsa. You have to be willing to ask stupid questions (which I am) and sound idiotic in another language (which I do). Most people respond really well.

      Thanks for the good wishes, Jen. It seems to have brought me real luck today!

  8. Kris,

    It seems like small spaces and small instances leave the biggest imprints on our life experiences and our hearts. I love it that you stopped to notice details and then shared what they were.

    Hope the powdered sugar fairy dust from your Grandma’s pancakes keeps bringing you luck in your research! 🙂


  9. Hi, Kris:

    First off, great story! It sounds like this is turning out to be a terrific adventure, and I’m envious. (Your trip also makes the prospect of going to do research I really SHOULD do already all the more appealing.)

    As for the plant: If I’m not mistaken, that is a variety of Angel’s Trumpet (also called a Horn of Plenty).

    Enjoy the rest of your trip, and stay safe.


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