The conductor looks at us with small eyes over the surgical mask.
“I won’t let you in with bicycles,” she says.
We are approximately eight people with bicycles on the platform. The train has six places reserved for bikes, but they are already taken. Everyone is furious. Someone takes photos of the conductor. Others write down her name with threats to talk to her manager. But she is adamant: rules are rules.
I feel angry too. I recall the man from the information desk, who assured us that reservation for bicycles is not needed (it is needed) and that there would be free places on the train (“it’s Corona time, after all”). But I am also angry with myself: I should have known better.
I hear the sobs of my son behind my back. For him, a trip to Lake Constance was meant to be a real adventure with imaginary pirates, sea battles, and mountains of treasures. It’s also his birthday today, which adds to the drama situation. I turn to him with words of comfort. Too late. Tears flow down his cheeks and drip onto a dusty platform and a bicycle chain.
To cheer up my son a bit, I give him a phone with his favorite cartoons. Of course, he stops crying. Lord, don’t send me to parental hell.
The next train to the lake is in one hour. We decide to go without bicycles and leave them on the bicycle parking at the station. We take only children bikes with us, for which a separate reservation is not necessary.
It takes just over three hours to get from Stuttgart to Konstanz by train. Except for us, there are five or six more people on the second deck of the car. All masked. All hold the “Abstand” and sit down at large intervals from each other. During quarantine, we traveled around the region several times, but this is the largest number of people that I have seen in one car. Coronavirus or not, people want to live. And traveling even for short distances is an integral part of life.
I noticed before that southbound trains are always slower than other trains. This has some kind of higher meaning: the south is not meant for any sort of rush. It is surprising that in a country comparable in size to a medium-sized region in Russia, there are such concepts as north and south, west and east. However, you probably won’t call Germany a country of contrasts. You will find almost identical cities both in the east and west. Both in the north and in the south, there is prosperity and poverty. But wealth is not questionable, and poverty is not striking.
You always arrive in Konstanz unexpectedly. One moment forests are stretching outside the window, and just a moment later, there is a lake strewn with whitish bodies of northerners.
The train stops. The children brutalized by three-hour isolation are breaking into doors that have not yet opened. I want to yell. But this feeling is leaving, as the doors of the train release all passengers to the platform. The proximity of large water hits my nose with freshness. Pleasant heat rises from the asphalt surface, and the platform instantly becomes empty: everyone runs to the water.
Lake Constance connects three countries at once: Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and there are small cities along the coast of the lake, the history of which dates back to the Middle Ages. Formally, the territory of the lake is terra nulliuis and does not belong to any of the states, since the countries have not managed to agree on where the water borders should go. So the boundaries here are only on land, and even those are more likely a legacy of the pre-Schengen world than a real barrier.
As we arrived later than planned, we cancel a walk around Constance. We have just over four hours left for everything, so immediately upon arrival, we board the ship going on the opposite side of the lake to the city of Meersburg. The boat is large, but it fills quickly, with few empty seats left on the side deck. That’s where we sit, prudently keeping a distance to an elderly couple. Still, their eyes flicker with worry when they see children without masks.
“Shouldn’t they be masked?” the woman asks, clinging to her husband.
“Only from six years old,” he replies with undisguised disappointment in his voice. With the outbreak of the epidemic, the children became almost untouchable — they are afraid of, they are avoided, and under no circumstances can be touched. Little devils.
A woman sighs. Both look at the expanse of water, not forgetting to watch children with lateral vision, who strive to violate the personal space of one and a half meters defined by the government. I do not judge the elderly couple. So, I hold my son with one hand and entertain him with stories about pirates plowing these waters hundreds of years ago, and knights who fought with them. The historical credibility of my stories is zero, but I don’t care. My son likes them.
This is already my second trip to Meersburg, and, for the second time, I feel that I am not in Germany. Medieval Gothic is mixed here with Baroque. The streets are decorated with kayaks. And the accumulation of boats of different colors and sizes in the local port gives the impression that we are in a Mediterranean resort. Comparison with the resort is probably not so far from the truth. People come to Meersburg to walk along the promenade, wet their legs in the lake, and sunbathe.
However, the main attraction of the city is the medieval castle, which you can see from almost anywhere in the town since it stands on a small mountain that divides Meersburg into the lower and upper parts.
Two paths lead to the upper town: a paved road and a steep staircase. Since we also have a baby in a stroller, we choose a paved road and begin our ascent to the castle, which takes only seven minutes. The road up ends with a tiny square with a fountain, from which two streets diverge: one leads to the castle, the other to the city center.
A short respite. Children want a knight’s castle. I want some coffee. Someone decides that only one adult should go to the castle with the children because the tickets are not cheap, and it’s not clear whether the game is worth the candle. So they decide to send me. I am an adult, and nobody cares if I like it.
I take the children by the hand and lead them to the castle, which rises like a black rock above our heads. At the bridge leading to the castle gates, there is a knight in gowns.
“Sir, tickets are sold at the office,” he points behind me. I nod.
We go to the office. At the entrance, there is a box, stuffed to the eyeballs with wooden weapons: bows, axes, swords, shields, and some kind of toy torture devices. Children are crying that they desperately need this stuff. I’m trying to resist. They start screaming. Everyone is looking. A minute later, we leave the office with tickets, a wooden ax, a bow, and three arrows. I will burn in parental hell for sure.
Meersburg Castle is considered one of the oldest castles in Germany. The tower was built in the seventh century. From here, the kings ruled the city and admired the view for millennia. Here, the poets died, and feasts were thrown. Easter was celebrated, and criminals executed. Sounds like a fun place.
We pass through the halls, the walls of which are decorated with stuffed animals and various weapons, knightly armor, and paintings. Children’s cries bounce off the stone walls of the castle. The Germans are very sensitive to children’s cries, but now there is no one to comment (in each room, there can be only one group of people), and there is no point — these walls have seen things much worse than loud children.
No room is like another, and in each one, you can shoot Winterfell scenes. We go down to the lower rooms, where the servants ate and baked bread. From there, you can also go to lower rooms, but we are not destined to get there — someone urgently needs to pee. The toilet is now far behind, and I am not sure if going backward is allowed here, so we are rushing to the exit past the stables, the armory, and the torture chamber. Still, what I saw was enough. Meersburg Castle is genuinely magnificent.
We spend the remaining time on the observation deck and Baroque square, shooting from a bow, brandishing an ax, and drinking coffee. The square is filled with tables, people without masks are sitting at tables, and their faces radiate happiness. Happiness to sit freely in a café that was closed for two months. Happiness to bask in the rays of the evening sun, enjoying a beer accompanied by the crunch of fried potatoes. Happiness to feel normal, even for a short while.
The feeling that life has returned to normal does not leave me throughout the trip. This, of course, is a hoax. Quarantine has not yet been canceled. The fines for violating it, too. Older people still go out only in masks. And even the ship’s staff walks around the deck, reminding all passengers that masks should cover both the mouth and nose and not just hang down the chin.
Still, a trip to Konstanz is like a breath of fresh air. The air here is, indeed, clean. Even the allergy that tortured me in the city does not bother me. But apart from that, there is also an elusive spirit of hope in the air around the lake. The hope that someday we will live again a normal life in which we don’t need to hide our smiles under masks.