A visit to the German island Borkum

Published 8:54 am Sunday, July 1, 2012

Column: By Sara Aeikens, Creative Connections

Several years ago, an Aeikens relative from the North Sea island of Borkum, Germany, located his American Midwest relatives and left a message in accented English inviting us to visit as long as we wanted and stay at his guest home. I kept those inspiring words on our answering machine for a few years, until my husband, Leo, and I actually made reservations. Who would have thought I’d have to travel 4,923 miles to ride a bicycle again?

We took a three-week trip in June to northern Germany, reaching our final goal of spending quality time with Leo’s extended family on an Ostfriesland (East Frisia) island. There we became acquainted with some members of the European branch of Leo’s family tree and visited several ancestors’ gravesites on the mainland.

Sara Aeikens

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We also had a special German friend to see. One summer many years ago my German-teacher husband took classes in both East and West Germany to improve his spoken German. An American class participant gave her cousin, from Germany and attending Hamburg University, an address list of her USA classmates.

While hitchhiking around the entire United States, he phoned us from Austin. So we picked him up there and he stayed with us in Albert Lea about a week. He helped build the roof on our garage and assisted with Leo’s high school German classes, which amused the students and improved their language skills.

More than 40 years later, after several transatlantic contacts, we finally visited our friend at his home near Hamburg, Germany. We traveled with him and his wife, spending time, together with our relatives in two of their home guest apartments on the vacation island of Borkum near the German-Dutch border.

On our joint journey to the island on the famous Autobahn, we witnessed a massive, several-mile-long right-lane truck traffic jam, which caused a tedious four-hour delay. We finally found an opening, taking back roads to the Emden Harbor ferry going to Borkum.

Our ferry ride to the North Sea isle took us past dozens of ships, hundreds of factory-fresh ghost-white VWs awaiting transport for final paint jobs and lots more electricity-generating wind turbines than we expected to see. Arriving at Borkum Island, we four quickly hopped onto an awaiting train with multi-colored coaches that caused me to wonder if our European family lived on a fantasy island.

This island, Germany’s largest, supports many sea-related activities and serves as a vacation destination for mostly Germans. Samplings of unique experiences became a sure thing for us, rare visitors from America, among more than 30,000 vacationers a month during peak summer season.

Community leaders certainly had foresight about a half century ago to take a three-by-six-mile island beset by poverty and turn it into a place to relax and enjoy an interesting holiday. The area’s unusual (to me) geography includes dikes and dike gates, sea walls and sand dunes where wild sandthorn berry bushes grow that produce orange candy, ice cream and liqueur products that locals sell to tourists.

Throughout this entire journey, great opportunities occurred for comparing creative inventions of our two cultures. Each day we observed new ways to solve problems, to make things more comfortable or to be more aware of options. I took fun photos of things likely not found in Albert Lea that seemed useful, practical, amusing or lovely.

At the Aeikens’ home on Borkum Isle, daily afternoon teatime began with a flowered paper napkin folded into a hand-crocheted cover, followed by hot tea served from an elegant tea service. Next came moon-rock-shaped sugar lumps and fresh, rich cream. Over several cups we had time for discussions in both German and English with our relatives and friends. Topics covered cultural differences such as living quarters, food and eating habits, politics, the euro and economics, health and aging, immigration and guest workers and other parallel issues of the U.S. and Germany.

The language was most often high or official German, but sometimes our relatives would slip into low German. Teaching the language 50 years ago did not save the day for me in understanding those conversations. Lots of printed signs in brick house front windows stated “free living space.” I thought it might be an advertising gimmick, but in German it only meant that the space was vacant.

The first day in our apartment, we pulled on what we thought was closet door and discovered instead a fold-down bed stored in the wall, with puffy top and bottom feather quilts. In the bathroom, the glass shower doors are etched to imitate water drops, which makes squeegee cleaning less imperative. Laundromats couldn’t be found on the island, so we took our bag of dirty clothes to a woman who washed and dried them.

In the kitchen, the refrigerator might be mistaken for a cupboard door. In our fridge, you could find delicious garlic brie cheese and homemade cooked red cabbage applesauce slaw. Ice cubes were a rarity. I also missed water fountains in public places. Oven-baked granola-like patties drenched in honey, dark chocolate-centered croissants and mango, coffee bean or truffle ice cream became other food favorites.

The Tourist Information Office by the central train station gave out many maps and connected me with a local Rotary Club past president at his home. They have a clever system; tourists can toss a marble into jars marked “Great,” “Maybe Helped” and “Not Helped,” in German, of course.

The main business district evolved into numerous tiny tourist shops on winding and bumpy brick streets where no private cars dare drive due to island driving restrictions. Many leave their cars at the Emden Harbor parking lot on the mainland. Delivery trucks, street workers, taxis and emergency vehicles still use the roads. An abundance of bicycles appears at every available parking or riding space.

Near Amsterdam’s central train station we saw a three-story garage filled with nothing but bikes. Some bicycles with front or back baskets haul pets or large purchases. I even saw one rider balancing a bulky hedge trimmer. Yes, I did get back on a bicycle for the first time since being hit by a car in September 2011. I fell a few hours later, due to unfamiliar pedal brakes, but got back on.

The island provides healthy activities that could fit into a Blue Zones category. The cultural center houses a library Leo enjoyed. The next-door building contains numerous kinds of gym, exercise and bodybuilding equipment. Many other places in town also offer massage, sauna, whirlpool, body cleansing and mineral-building activities.

Lengthy island wanderings in my new, comfortable Ecco walking shoes allowed me to stare at buzzing bee bundles hovering over lavender flower clumps and see miles of rose hedges bordering curved pedestrian paths. We visited a whale museum and on Sunday mornings walked to either a Lutheran or a Dutch Reformed church, two of three island congregations.

I also climbed to the top of two lighthouse towers, both brick. The community made the centuries-old one square and the new one round. A posted sign in German on the round tower, instructs the last person leaving to latch the door. As the last and only person, I spent 10 minutes in the fog and wind trying to figure out how to do that.

On a tour to visit an old floating lighthouse called a fire ship, we found the presentation by the German National Park Service unique, as it connected sea traveling with environmental impact on the sea and wildlife. Walking excursions or horse and buggy rides on island North Sea beaches allow closer views of large groups of lounging seal families.

My most amazing encounter with wildlife happened with a raspberry ice cream bar in my hand. A seagull dive-bombed me from behind and succeeded in causing me to stumble as the huge bird hit my shoulder but didn’t get a bite of my bait. This unfolded on a beach littered with cabana chairs, in front of an Italian restaurant called Leo’s — another novel experience.

Sara Aeikens is an Albert Lea resident.