Seventeen days across the pond
For most of my career at The Lawton Constitution, my trips were to places like Altus, Duncan, Apache, Chattanooga, Carnegie, Frederick, Cache, Elgin and the other towns in our circulation area.
Sure, there were trips to Stillwater, Norman, Tulsa and Oklahoma City for college and high school events, plus there were some special gigs thanks to the publishers.
Those included Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New Orleans, Orlando, San Antonio and Houston for bowl games. Plus there were many trips to Dallas for a wide variety of sports events.
However, beyond that, my work-related trips never involved journeying outside of the United States. There were the many trips we took to Mexico in my younger years with my dad, who loved to test his Spanish, but nothing outside the good old United States in my adult life.
This summer, though, we took the plunge and decided to visit Germany to see wife Brigitte’s biological mother – Helga Diefenbeck – and her brother, Dr. Christian Diefenbeck.
This all started with a trip Brigitte took back in 1982 when she went to Germany and found her family, which is an amazing story that will be shared in the near future.
Her family came to America in 1985 to visit Lawton. Her brother made another journey through our city about 15 years ago after graduating from medical school.
We wanted to make the journey to Germany for years, but in our earlier years of marriage son Russell was busy growing up and starting his own family with wife Tanya, who is about the best travel partner for many reasons including she’s a professional photographer. Also, Brigitte and yours truly both had some medical issues that often occupied the summer months, plus both of us had our jobs, which we both love because they serve the great people of Lawton and Southwest Oklahoma.
This year, though, with me in semi-retirement and grandson Jordy now 8 years old and ready to more enjoy and remember the trip, we decided to go for it.
As we learned, planning an international trip is not an easy matter, especially when you throw in my use of a power wheelchair.
Our longtime friend, Comanche County Court Clerk Robert Morales, along with his staff, made it easy for Jordy and I to apply for our passports.
Seeing the little guy holding up his right arm and taking the oath that all the information on his application was accurate brought a warm feeling to me and made me realize this was going to be a great experience.
Because of my power chair, we had to make sure the hotels we picked were ADA compatible, which can sometimes be a problem overseas since so many buildings were built hundreds of years ago.
And, since we had our own tour guides, we didn’t need an organized tour, but another longtime friend, George Johnsen down at Adventure Travel in Central Mall, gave us some valuable information about air travel.
American Airlines launched a new Europe Gateway cities schedule in early July with non-stop routes to London, Paris, Munich and a couple of other cities.
We wound up booking a non-stop flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International straight into Munich on something AA calls premium economy. Basically what that means is you get wider seats, something that came in handy for most of our five-person delegation. Plus we got better refreshments, meals and snacks.
We left DFW about 3:25 p.m. on July 6 on a Boeing Dreamliner 788 and flew nearly 10 hours, crossing the Midwest just south of Chicago, then across the tip of Maine, near Nova Scotia, then across the Atlantic Ocean north of Ireland and straight into Munich.
Thanks to the good Dr. Diefenbeck, we had a handicap bus waiting at the airport and it rushed us to our first hotel, the Munich West Hilton Garden Inn. Go figure, the same chain that I’ve driven past hundreds of times headed to work down on 2nd Street.
We got some sleep, ate what we could find on a Sunday afternoon – most shops and restaurants close on Sunday – then went back to sleep with an early wake-up call for our next journey, taking the DBahn bullet train to Hamburg, where Michael and wife Dr. Christina Diefenbeck, an oral maxillofacial surgeon, reside.
Michael and mom Helga met us in the hotel lobby and with 30 years to catch up on, it was an emotional time. Her face beamed when she saw he only great-grandchild, Jordy.
That’s when the first of our challenges occurred.
Michael informed us that the lift, or elevator, at the subway stop near our hotel was out of order. So, we all grabbed our bags and started racing four or five blocks to the next subway stop.
That’s when we learned how friendly and helpful the German people can be. One gentleman noticed us rushing with bags and told us we needed to cross the street to get to the next subway lift.
We accomplished that and finally got all seven of us on the subway to the main train station. But the best laid plans were wrecked by another broken lift, leaving us stranded just below the waiting train that would take us to Hamburg.
The only way around the problem was for me to get out of my scooter, use my crutches and try to stay upright on the escalator. Getting on the escalator went better than expected, with me still standing.
But as I went up the incline, I pictured myself being thrown off by the momentum and into a heap on the floor. Thank heavens there was a rail right at the end of the escalator, I lunged for it with my one hand and balanced myself with a crutch in the other hand, breathing a sigh of relief.
That was just the first problem, my trusty Hoveround was waiting below and with the trip just starting I couldn’t afford to have it caught in the escalator and have the tires ruined. But Michael and son Russell drove the front wheels on a step and it rode to the top better than its owner.
After that hurdle we figured we could handle anything.
The good thing about Europe, trains can take you everywhere and most of them have cars that are well equipped for handicapped riders. I had my own table and the family was seated close at hand.
The German countryside was just amazing, beautiful small farms growing wheat, hops, barley and a wide variety of crops.
Plus, we got to see all the small towns because these trains stop at many towns, the longest stop at Nuremberg, where the United States Army once had a major presence.
When we got to Hamburg, the scenery changed in a hurry, from a quiet countryside look to a major ocean port looming to our left as we pulled into the train station.
Immediately, we learned that getting around in Hamburg was going to be easy because Michael walked and I drove my scooter to our hotel, which was just a short walk from the shore of Lake Elster.
Anyone who has ever visited Hamburg knows about Elster. It’s a beautiful lake where sailing and rowing are the main interests. Our hotel sat right across the street from the lake and its many activities.
Fortunately, mom was staying at the same hotel, so she and Brigitte got to catch up on the past years each morning at breakfast at the ninth-floor restaurant that overlooked the lake.
Michael and Christina live in a flat on the lake as well, so that area was headquarters during our stay in the thriving port city.
I mentioned getting around in Hamburg, it’s the best deal we found. You purchase a family daily bus ticket each day and it works for the buses and water ferries as well.
Our first full day there we went down to the warehouse region, which is where the Hamburg economy was built years ago. Big sailing ships would bring tea and spices from the Far East and dock alongside the warehouses. Then huge winches would lift the bundled products to the various levels of the warehouses.