It’s difficult for backpackers to escape the package-deal tourism industry. Philipp Laage takes a trip to Vietnam – and comes face to face with his own shortcomings.
It’s almost unbelievable. A fourteen-hour journey, yet I won’t be leaving my home country. You just start in the south – in my case Munich – then head way up north. The crazy thing is that I’m anticipating this journey with much less excitement than for other trips. The reason is as simple as it is banal: I’m staying in Germany rather than going abroad. My destination is the small East Frisian island of Langeoog.
My expectations? They’re not unbounded – in my case neither literally nor figuratively. It’s not fair, really. If I spend a few days on Lake Garda, for instance – which is barely four hours from Munich – I feel a noticeably stronger sense of excitement. After all, I’m entering Trentino, over the border into Italy. Another language, delicious food, fine wine and so on.
Borders – how absurd! There’s no such thing in a united Europe. Yet crossing them still exercises a certain fascination. As if a vast strangeness, an endless unknown is waiting for me on the other side. The flip side is that if I travel around within my own borders, in my home country, I feel a distinct lack of fantasy and curiosity.
Sitting on the high-speed train to Hanover I become aware of how little I really know about Germany. Ingolstadt, Nuremberg, Würzburg, Fulda, Kassel, Göttingen. I’ve been to the football stadium in Nuremberg many times. But even so. Würzburg? How pretty the town seems, even from the station. I’ve got to smile to myself. There’s an advantage to having low expectations: you can’t be disappointed, only surprised. Slowly but surely, I start to enjoy my journey through the country. Germany, from bottom to top.
Why haven’t I done this before?
Once I reach Hanover – where I get off the high-speed ICE train and clamber aboard a regional one – my internal clock suddenly begins ticking more slowly. I’m calmer, more relaxed, more serene. On the train to Oldenburg the passengers are mainly housewives, schoolchildren and students, rather than business travellers, with school satchels and shopping bags rather than tablets and briefcases. With every passing hour as we chug further north, my tempo slows. So does my mind. I’m no longer texting or checking emails on my phone, but staring out of the window, lost in thought. Hour after hour. Heading ever northwards, towards the sea.
After ten hours and various trains I end up on the bus to Bensersiel. Arriving at the ferry terminal, I breathe a sigh of relief. Despite my fears, I’ve made it in time for the last boat to the island. It’s raining hard; pouring, in fact. It seems an ideal moment to be downcast and on edge. But I’m happy. I can smell the sea. I can feel it bringing me back to life, awakening my long-lost curiosity. I’m crossing a kind of border after all. On the barely hour-long ferry journey I’m leaving not only the mainland, but also my familiar world.
Now I’m ready. Now at last I’m prepared for the island.
There’s no one else standing on the upper deck. Just me. A strong wind buffets the rainclouds away, while I sail into the faint sunset. It’s bitterly cold, yet wonderful. The expanse! The vastness! 360 degrees of pure visual enjoyment.
In the city my field of view is always hemmed in by apartment blocks. In my beloved alps it’s the mountains that block my line of sight. Is that one reason, perhaps, why I like climbing the peaks so much?
So much for flat being boring! Here the opposite is the case: I can’t get enough of the expanse.
Breathe, breathe, breathe…
P.S. My journey is not yet at an end. After the ferry I sit for a few minutes on the quaint little island train before I reach Langeoog station. To get to my hotel I climb – I’m not making this up – into a carriage. Langeoog is, after all, a car-free zone.
How do I feel immediately after my arrival? As if transported into another world, one I recognise from my childhood. I feel like Lisa from Astrid Lindgren’s book ‘All About the Bullerby Children’. Everything here is small, neat, easily grasped, cosy, and incredibly homey.
Who would have thought? I’m in Germany, but far, far away!
* * *
The night was divine. A deep sleep in the silence, ten hours in one go. When was the last time I slept so long? Now a whole day lies before me. I have no idea how I’m going to spend it. I’ll just let myself be carried along. I want to explore the small island – Langeoog measures barely twenty square kilometres – on foot today. Tomorrow by bike.
You’re compelled to experience the island at a moderate pace, as there are no cars, which suits me just fine. Theoretically, at least. Just strolling the hours away. If you live in a city, like I do, you find the slowness initially a little overwhelming. Or underwhelming, maybe.
I pick up the pace and dive headlong into the centre of the town, in whose narrow streets life is hesitatingly waking up. As if I might miss something; but I won’t. It’s peaceful here at the beginning of March. Very peaceful. A few stray tourists are out and about, fetching fresh rolls and the daily papers at their leisure. They’re always ready for a quick chinwag – all you have to do is stop and smile, and you’re embroiled in a conversation.
Outside the small shopfronts, only a handful of which are open in the off-season, stands with postcards and souvenirs are being erected, final deliveries taken, doors opened, and a few tables and chairs placed on the pavement. I relax my pace, adjusting to the rhythm of the island. It seems to be whispering to me,
‘Slowly, very slowly! I’m giving you time on your first day.’
You inevitably get to know the most famous Langeooger as you wend your way up the main street and turn your gaze towards the dunes. It has eight corners, measures a proud eighteen metres and is very, very old. In 2009 it celebrated its hundredth birthday.
For the locals, too, the water tower with its red roof represents a slice of home. In 1909 it was built on the ten-metre-high Kaap Dune, its elevation creating sufficient pressure to supply running water to the town. The tower was taken out of operation at the end of the 1980s, and the museum inside it is closed today.
That’s fine, I’ll go to the beach instead; you can hear the waves breaking softly even from here. A strip of dunes separates me from the water. I take a few steps up over the pathway to the beach, and then? Intoxication. Voilà: it lies at my feet. The North Sea. Harsh and windswept, it’s anything but lovely. The roaring waves seem to greet me:
‘Quickly, quickly, come down to the water!’
The sand eddying through the air functions like a natural exfoliator on my skin. So much for a casual stroll! On a day like this, as a strong headwind rushes over the North Sea, a walk on the beach can quickly turn into a real workout.
The whole beach is in motion! Mussels lying on the ground take up arms against the wind with remarkable success. Sand settles around their shells, acting as a natural barrier. It’s textbook, but real and live: the creation of a miniature dune!
For three hours on my walk I let myself undergo this free thalassotherapy. Sun, sand, waves, water, air, seaspray and the odd cloud. Although it felt pretty damn good to be so thoroughly windswept, at some point I withdraw from the natural spectacle on the beach. On the way back I pass through the Pirolatal, an area of dunes protected from the wind. Its gentle landscape is bewitching, magical. Silent. The North Sea’s din is inaudible here. There’s nothing but a few birdcalls, one more beautiful than the other. Do fairies and elves live here? Walking past the Schloppsee I reach the highest elevation in the island, the Melkhörn Dune.
Then there are the mudflats. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Grand Canyon the USA, the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific and the South Tyrolean Dolomites number among the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites. Wonders of nature so special and valuable that they are protected as part of our heritage. Since June 2009 the North Sea mudflats have been one such site. Langeoog is part of this unique natural landscape, which is almost unsurpassable in terms of its diversity. Next time I visit I definitely want to go on a guided walk through the mudflats. I’m very curious about the over 10,000 species of animals and plants to which this brownish-grey sludge is home.
I imagine wallowing stark naked, just once, in the mud would be unbelievably funny and invigorating.
The thought takes root in my head as a definite wish.
In the evening I read on the internet that there are currently 1,720 people living on Langeoog. That means eighty-six occupants per square kilometre. In fact, they live on less than a tenth of the total area of the island. The rest is permanently reserved as a National Park for wildlife and the untouched natural landscape.
Back in town I allow myself something typical of East Friesland: a dollop of cream in tea. The ‘teetied’ – teatime – is an integral part of East Frisian society, and essential to their culture of hospitality. On average, an East Frisian drinks around 300 litres of tea per year, twelve times the consumption of an average German. In fact, the East Frisians drink more tea per capita than anywhere else on earth. They mostly brew strong, dark Assam tea.
Typical of a real tea ceremony in East Friesland, and therefore also on Langeoog, is ‘kluntje’ – crystallised sugar – and fresh cream. Both are plunged untouched into the tea. I can hear the crackling of the sugar, and am delighted. I’m glad nobody sees me lean my left ear towards the cup, trying to catch the sound of the sugar happily melting.
* * *
I drink tea – lots of tea.
I eat fish sandwiches. Always fish sandwiches.
And I stare at the water for hours. I don’t find it monotonous. On the contrary: it’s a blessing, pure and simple. I enjoy the balmy sun as if it were shining on me for the last time. As I turn my face to the wind, I can feel my skin reacting gratefully, flushing a cheerful pink. In the calm of the off-season I go to bed unusually early. Every text message I get from the mainland is a nuisance. For the first time ever on a trip, I put my mobile on airplane mode.
It’s beautiful. But would I want to live here? Could I, even? What kind of people live permanently on such a tiny island, so far off the beaten track? Are they hiding from the rest of the world, out here in the North Sea? What was it that brought them to this place? Was it the lure of a tranquil lifestyle? What keeps them here? The peace? The view? The nature? What does the island do to them?
Mayk D. Opiolla works at reception in my hotel, and gives me excellent advice about a bike ride. Behind his desk he reigns supreme. Smartly dressed, extremely polite and very obliging, he’s a nice chap who knows his job, and I take an immediate liking to him. He speaks in such a polished way, and expresses himself so well! Somehow I’m immediately impressed.
In the evening we finally get to talking. Mayk has been living permanently on the island since April 2014. In 2012 he experienced a truly golden October here during the World Migratory Bird Day weekend. Immediately love-struck, the librarian and copywriter – I knew it! – succumbed at last to the magic of the island, which he had known since childhood. Langeoog appeared more beautiful, romantic and inspiring than ever, a dream holiday with all sorts of consequences.
Mayk no longer lives in Berlin, but on Langeoog, where he earns his crust at the Hotel Logierhus. In his free time he enjoys the natural world, which quite clearly are an enduring inspiration for him: he’s created marvellous drawings on the island – he likes to depict birds most of all – and an enchanting blog, ‘Geflügel mit Worten’ (Birds with Words). His first book has just come out, he says. When Mayk gives me a copy with an inscription, I’m genuinely touched, and begin to read it that same evening. I devour it. In ‚Snapshots‘ Mayk ponders across 130 pages the pain of a failed relationship and an eternal passion – for Langeoog.
Holger Damwerth, who grew up on Langeoog, became a captain due to his love of the sea. Four stripes adorn the jacket of his uniform. He’s been on some long trips, having sailed the seven seas – even the polar sea. Nicole, on the other hand, who worked as an editor, was lured to the island – and onto a ship – by her love for the captain. Since getting married and starting a family with the mind-boggling number of eight (!) children, they make a strong team, both personally and professionally.
They refer to the MS Flinthörn, their ship, named after a part of the island in the south-west of Langeoog, as a comfortable ‘all weather ship’, meaning that you can take beautiful and above all entertaining tours on the Flinthörn in more than just radiant sunshine. Apparently it stays cosy and warm in the two lounges even in miserable weather. And hot chocolate, coffee and sea-buckthorn toddies from the ship’s galley are well-known as warming drinks. Guests, you can read on the Damwerth shipping company’s website, also lovingly refer to the Flinthörn as the ‘bathtub steamer’, because it looks like one of those bulbous toy ships you give children to splash around with in the bath. It is a little rotund, perhaps. Another favourite among the guests is the term ‘waffle boat’, because Nicole Damwerth makes great quantities of delicious waffles on demand in the ship’s galley, following her secret recipe.
During the summer months, the two of them and their accompanying tourists make twice-daily trips out onto the sea: a cocktail trip or an informative exploration of the mudflats. When Holger Damwerth shows me around the Flinthörn, it’s not during the season.
As the captain makes his final preparations for a burial at sea that will be taking place the next day, covering the tables in the lounge with black cloths, he placidly philosophises about life. Some mornings he travels towards Baltrum, to the darlings of the North Sea, the quizzical seals who lie on the sandbanks and pose for the tourists. Later he sails along the coast with a high-spirited wedding party. During the afternoon’s pirates-and-mermaids tour there are forty screeching children on board. Then as the sun goes down there’s a burial at sea – like tomorrow.
Weddings, children, deaths, work parties, lovers’ trysts, farewells, happiness and tears – all facets of life poured into the same melting pot. It brings serenity, but not indifference. A day later I’m invited to the Damwerths’ house. Never have I experienced such concentrated zest for life in a relatively small space, even though only four of their eight children are home. One of the girls is having a birthday. In the front room the table of presents is dominated by the colour pink. Nicole Damwerth is at least as serene as her husband. Amid the screeching and the bustle, she tells me – just in passing – about the children’s books she writes and illustrates.
Next morning I’m standing in the island’s bookshop. With ‘Amelie and the Treasure of the Viking Ship’ under my arm I leave the premises.
Then I sit on the beach and settle down appreciatively to read the children’s book…
* * *
When I heard about you for the first time – I want to be completely honest with you – I had to resort to Google to pin down where you are geographically. I knew you were hiding from me somewhere in the North Sea, but I had to check exactly where you were among your brothers and sisters, the six other East Frisian islands, and how I could reach you. Forgive my ignorance – I live in Munich. Here, when you think of the sea, your mind turns southwards, to the Brenner motorway, Italy, and so on.
I know I needed a little push to go on a first date with you, but that’s down to the distance between us. We’re separated by more than 900 kilometres of road, clear across the country. After all, I sat on the train for ten solid hours before, reaching Esens, I gradually entered your atmosphere. Then there was a bus and a ferry, and finally the island train and a carriage. All in all it took twelve hours before I stood at last at your door. I could have reached a resort in distant Mexico or the Maldives in the same amount of time. And yet the way I had to approach you, so cautiously, impressed me somehow. You can’t be reached ‚just like that‘. Winning you over requires both time and patience. Perhaps I should mention here what brought me to you: someone paid me. I was asked to explore and experience you, so I could subsequently spill the beans about our first meeting in a daily newspaper. Put like that, I was mercenary.
But back to you: you blew me away the moment I set foot on your beach. At times you are sparing with your sweet side. You don’t peddle it around. Your beach, for instance, can’t be seen immediately, or from just anywhere. I always have to take a few steps to coax out your beauty.
So past the water tower I go, and up the Kaap Dune, another few steps. And then? Suddenly you offer up all your charms, in recompense for the long journey, revealing your fairy-tale magic. The North Sea is at your feet. Everything, as far as the horizon, seems to belong to you – and therefore, for a moment, to me. As the sun goes down you radiate a peace I can sense, feel and breathe. My gaze widens, my thoughts are calm, my soul rests. Time stands still as the sky is mirrored in your tidal waterways. For a minute I feel you embracing me in all your glory.
I must resign myself to sharing my love for you with many other people, although otherwise I generally prefer to be monogamous. After all, I’m not the only one who admires you. And yet, there are times when you belong only to me. In the early morning, for instance, or in really dreadful weather.
What do you think, Langeoog – a long-distance relationship? Shall we give it a shot?