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A CROSS-COUNTRY SKI TOUR (Satis Shroff, Freiburg)

It was a chilly Sunday morning in February when Stefan, his wife Barbara, and I, decided to do a bit of cross-country skiing in the Feldberg area, which happens to be the highest peak in Baden-Württemberg (south-west Germany).

We’d received a call 8am from Frau Heinz (Stefan’s mother) who had made a rendezvous near the kiosk in Feldberg. After a short drive from Freiburg up the Vale of Hell, past the Hirschsprung, where the stag in stone was visible, we were in the skiing area.

The Hirschsprung reminded me of the Chovar Gorge in the vicinity of Kathmandu, where according to legend, Manjushri cut through a gorge to let out the water from Kathmandu Valley, which was then a lake.

Here, there were definitely more alpine than cross-country skiiers. Stefan’s parents had decided to do a bit of trekking or ‘wandern’ as the Germans are wont to call it, and they’d also volunteered to take along their grand-daughter Amanda. After the usual ‘Ski Heil!’ and ‘Aufwiedersehen’ salutes, we went our ways.

We had to duck under the many lifts that seemed to traverse the whole mountain, and there were alpine-skiers whizzing past you from every direction. I thought we had definitely chosen the wrong place to do cross-country.

However, after a short distance we left the fast-skiers behind and were rewarded with a sight of the Alps in all their magnificence from a snow-covered summit. It was one of the loveliest sights I’d ever seen since I was in Switzerland a year back. I’d gone to see the Rhone glacier and managed to enter the recesses of the glacier, because the clever Swiss had even cut a tunnel through the massive ice. When it comes to exploiting nature for the sake of tourism, the Swiss are indeed far ahead of the European crowd.

The Black Forest is wonderful in spring and autumn with pine trees, lush meadows, valleys, mountains and tarns. You notice the good up-keeping for which the forest officials are responsible, despite the scare that you hear now and then about a ‘dying Schwarzwald’, mostly due to the heavy emission of carbon monoxide and dioxide by the traffic that threatens to increase all the time. The Germans, as a nation, have become extremely conscious of pollution and are well ahead as far as countermeasures and protests are concerned.

The ‘Bürgerinitiative’ as local protests groups are called, were rather loud in the past in their attempt to prevent the construction of the autobahn B 31, which slices through Freiburg and its east-end Ebnet. More cars (despite catalysators) means bad air, and bad air means a fall in the quality of life in this Schwarzwald metropolis.

Freiburg was the ecological capital of Germany till 1996, and holds among others an annual international ecological film festival. It has introduced an ecological train-bus-tram ticket to get the commuters off their cars with a great degree of success. This idea already existed in Switzerland since many years, and it is catching on in other cities in Germany. The park-and-ride idea is another welcome contribution, whereby you park your car in the suburb of a city, and take the tram or bus into the city-centre.

It is indeed difficult to get most Germans to travel by alternative methods, because the car remains a status-object in Germany, unlike the Swiss who have privatised their railways during the First and Second World Wars and have developed it to profitable excellence. The Swiss don’t mind switching over to their trains, trams (fondly called ‘trämle’) and cable cars, but most Germans still behave as though not travelling by car would be beneath their dignity. I recall a Swabian lady near Rottweil, who told me in her loud Swabian voice, ‘If you live in this area and don’t possess a car, then you’re a Depp’ (something of an idiot). That also brings me to the tale of two young German ladies I know, who went through Europe’s longest Gottard-tunnel, with Eros Ramazotti’s Italian song and music blaring in their Golf Cabrio on their way to Italy, without bothering to use the hood, and came out with blue lips, and had to undergo medical treatment.

In Germany, the car is the pride of the family, and you still see the average German cleaning and polishing it on Saturdays and Sundays, with a dedication, tenderness and thoroughness that would be better reserved for other human spheres. The fear of the increasing Umweltverschmutzung, as environmental pollution is called in German, has made the Germans take to the sanfte-tourism (with insight) promoted by Jost Krippendorf et al, though one ought to be sceptical when millions of tourists (trekkers, alpinists and climbers) take to the mountains in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tirol and so forth. These invasions en masse throughout the years have had their effects in devastating the mountain countryside of Europe in general. The ski-tourism takes the bulk of the environ¬mental destruction, and the catastrophic results have been evident only too often in the form of landslides, for entire areas are robbed of their vegetation especially trees. Albert¬ville, the venue of the Winter Olympics, was another example of the rape of Nature in the name of sport and economy.

‘It’s wonderful here,’ said Barbara with a jump like a ski-acrobat, pointing with one of her ski-sticks to the distant clouds. She seemed to be eternally fascinated by clouds. I remembered the time we’d visited the Basle art exhibition and the three of us had taken turns in pointing out and describing landscape paintings. Her descriptions of the cloud formations had been so precise and poetic.

Despite the increasing pollution in the valleys, the air up at Feldberg was refreshing and wonderful. The snowy landscape and the blue sky, with remarkably few clouds, was a marvellous sight, in comparison to the misty atmosphere in the city below. You could really breathe up here and not think about pseudo-krupp or other respiratory diseases. It seemed as though the world was intact here. I thought about the time we’d visited a Black Forest farmer’s family after dusk, and the fact that I’d seen myriads of flies on the Schwarzwälder bacons that hung from the ceiling of the Bauernhof at Munstertal. It was something unusual in Germany’s otherwise sterile and clean houses. At that moment I’d thought, it was just like in Nepal. It reminded me of a journey to a Tamang shaman’s thatched house and the dinner they’d eaten , seated on mats on the floor, as is the custom in Nepal, with their right hands, accompanied by scores of Musa domestica, as flies are called, flying sorties everywhere in the household, oblivious of the humans.

I was glad that I was in the company of two jolly, ecological-conscious and cosmo¬politan Germans, which is saying quite a lot. The younger post-war generation of Germans are well-travelled, suave and chic and think about the consequences of air, water and soil pollution and also rightists, who have been getting more organised since the eighties and are getting louder, due to Germany’s liberal fundamental laws and complacent politicians. They are even represented in the German Bundestag, which means that the rightist lobby is growing due also to the high rate of joblessness and German companies moving out to cheap-labour countries.

Stefan has developed a liking for Nepal and its mountains, where he went on two treks: the Annapurna and Everest, and has ‘wonderful memories of his walks in the Nepalese countryside’ which he refreshes by arranging transparency-slide shows on the beauty, development and destruction of Nepal. Stefan is a tall blue-eyed, sensitive intellectual and shares Bruce Chatwin’s love of travel and adventure at Patagonia, and would like to travel around the world, and write about it rather than work in Basel as a professional social worker me¬diating in drug, criminal and family matters of his affluent, but otherwise weird Swiss clients.

Those who took part in the 1968 protests in Germany against the American war in Viet¬nam are part of the establishment or responsible members of the Greens, Green Peace and the BUND, which is a pan-German ecological organisation.

It is encouraging that there are genuine protests against the Umweltverschmutzung (ecological pollution) in the European continent. The French, especially the people living in Alsace, are becoming increasingly aware of the ecological damage caused by the chemical and atomic industry, in comparison to their compatriots in other parts of France. Umweltverschmutzung and Waldsterben (dying forests) were unknown to most French people in the 80’s, and they even thought it was an idea imported from Germany, till the radioactive clouds of Chernobyl swept through Europe. Even then, the French departments made themselves rather conspicuous through their nonchalant official advice to the worried French public, eager to know about the effects of radioactivity on humans, animals and crops.

Due to Freiburg’s triangular location, the developments in the French and Swiss border-towns are quickly passed on, and the people of this triangle called the Regiodreieck, bounded by Alsace, Switzerland, the Black Forest, the Vosges and the Alps, show solidarity and take part in festivals, exhibitions, political and economic demonstrations and also joint-ventures.

Our ski-tour over, we went to our home and warmed ourselves with rum-tea, creamy Black Forest torte sprinkled with Schwarzwälder schnaps, and coffee.

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