It's so long since the trip, when Ms T and I and our sons travelled to the UK for the first time, and one of the great memories has nothing to do with the UK – more than ten years.
Don't get me wrong: the UK trip was a treat beyond our means, which is why our dearest friend on earth helped us get there. But … that is a different story.
In a world that hadn't yet suffered the global terrorism panic pandemic, we called by a minor German city, Lübeck, on our way home. The only reason is that Ms T believes a big part of her family history is associated with that city. “We once owned a castle that got turned into a mental hospital in East Germany” is the short version.
So we figured out that a cheap flight would land us in Lübeck to be tourists, a cheapish train would take us to Hamburg, and after that we could pick up our flight back to Australia with no penalty.
So we went to Lübeck, and there are things to see there: churches, for example, restored after WW2 in which the “restoration” work is left in plain white and the “original church” is the bits gathered up after the war, so you can see, dark-on-white, the extent of the devastation.
There's the tourist boat trip around the harbour, which I loved. Or the sausage-seller who could talk better to my son (who has no German) than to my wife (who studied the language in high school)!
But that's not my favourite memory of Lübeck.
My favourite memory happens at border control, in an airport better described as a “shed”, with one bored customs guard processing the incoming passengers.
It seems that in those days, at least, if you were flying cheap and your destination was a Hamburg industry conference, you landed in Lübeck and got a free bus to the conference. So the customs officer had his repertoire down pat:
“Travelling to Hamburg? Out the door, right to the bus, good-day.”
We broke his recitation.
“Travelling to Hamburg? Out...”
“No. We're travelling to Lübeck.”
“Lübeck?” … pause … “Why?”
(And I'm not going to try to do a German accent in text.)
Ms T: “Because my family came from here.”
The customs guard switched from bored to a face-splitting grin and arms spread wide. Really: I've rarely seen a transformation like it, especially from someone in uniform behind a desk. He stood up:
“Welcome! Welcome to Lübeck! Willkommen! To our lovely city!”
It took us a few minutes – which wasn't welcomed by those behind us – to get through customs, because we were receiving (good) advice about where to get breakfast, and being reminded that “you can walk everywhere in Lübeck!” (which was true), and a reminder of the churches and squares that were worth seeing (he was right).
And the customs guard gave us the key bit of information that made our walking-tourism perfect, that day: “Go to the railway in a taxi, leave the luggage in a locker, and go walking”.
And we have wonderful and (some) distressing memories of that city: its war damage must have been horrific, for example. But we also remember being welcomed at the gate of the city, with joy and enthusiasm, and I wish a dozen years later I could find that guard so we could all thank him properly for helping us find a strange city in a foreign tongue, and enjoy it.
But the world changed, with America holding the whip: I guess the customs guards who have license to smile are few and far between, today. But Lübeck won't have changed that much behind the gate, and it's a wonderful place.