Small Town (Not) America

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My home for the week. 🙂

When you’re doing research for your dissertation, you go to where the sources are. Sometimes, that takes you to major European capitals, like Berlin. Other times, you travel to smaller but still prominent cities like Hannover or Koblenz. But occasionally, you find yourself researching smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

And, as you probably guessed, this week happens to be one of those times.

Although my dissertation frustration is still ongoing, I had a breakthrough shortly after posting my last blog entry. Thanks to some intensive Googling, the German white pages, and some old-school snail mail, I tracked down an archive with some really important sources. And that’s how I ended up in Gross Särchen, a tiny town in the German middle of nowhere roughly halfway Dresden and the Polish border.

Here I should point out that, though I hail from suburbia, I’ve been to my fair share of small towns. One doesn’t grow up in Kansas and go to school in Oklahoma without experiencing a few places that barely qualify for their dot on the map. Plus, during my semester in Austria, I’d visited several tiny European towns. And so through my experiences at home and abroad, I’d come to the conclusion that most small towns share a few common features. For American towns, this usually includes a gas station/convenience store (often with a Casey’s Pizza), a grocery store, and maybe, just maybe a stoplight. For European towns, the list would feature public transit and/or railway access, a church, and a small town square with maybe a restaurant or two and certainly an ATM.

… Or so I thought.

My first clue should have come while I was planning my trip. In response to my query on the Deutsche Bahn website, I received a message that “no routes were found” between Gross Särchen and Berlin. A similar search on Google Maps revealed that, while I could get here via public transit, I would need to take a bus. No train station = Clue #1.

My second clue should have been the housing situation. After I’d confirmed the dates with Herr Ness (who has the archive in his apartment), he offered to check with a nearby inn to see if they had rooms available. Upon hearing that they were booked up, he gave me the contact info for another bed and breakfast in the next town over. No second hotel option = Clue #2

My third would-be clue was closely tied to the first and second. For while I now had a way to get to my research location and a place to stay in the neighboring town (the hotel there luckily wasn’t full), I had no way of getting between the two. Another quick check on Google Maps showed that there were no connecting bus routes. Fortunately, Herr Ness offered to drive me each day. No bus routes = Clue #3.

Despite all of these very obvious clues, I was still fairly clueless about just how small this town would be. That is, until the bus dropped me off in a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere. Thinking that the bus driver must have been confused—after all, two different town names were listed on my ticket; maybe he had dropped me off at the wrong one—I pulled out my trusty Google Maps app and put in the hotel address. But to my surprise, I was in the right place, and that cul-de-sac was the closest thing to a town square this little dot on the map had. Three minutes and an abandoned-barn sighting later, I found myself at the front door of the Gasthof (Bed & Breakfast) where I’d be staying for the week.

If the preceding events could be considered hints or clues, then what happened next was a dead giveaway. And as I stepped inside the Gasthof’s restaurant/reception area, all conversation ceased and everyone turned in unison to stare at me. If it wasn’t clear before, it was painfully obvious now: I was in a very, very, very small town.

This in itself shouldn’t have been a problem. As an awkward person myself, I have (almost) no trouble with odd social dynamics. And I’ve traveled enough that I’ve grown rather accustomed to sticking out like a sore thumb. Besides, at least I was in Germany, where I could speak the language. No, my problem would be one of a much more tangible—or you might say “liquid”—nature: I didn’t have any money. That’s right, I’d managed to leave Berlin without making it to the ATM. Which meant that I’d showed up in the German version of Mayberry with a whopping 10 Euros and 73 cents in my wallet. And somehow those funds needed to last me for the week. Oops.

Here I should stop to clarify that, although my situation was looking rough, it could have been worse. My room came with breakfast and, since the restaurant was connected to the hotel (as I learned during my oh-so-awkward entrance), I could my meals “on my tab” to pay with my room at the end of the week. This meant that I needed to find a way to stretch my accidental 10-Euro budget across four lunches. With a pre-rumbling stomach, I stopped my mental calculating and called it night, hoping that I’d find a way to make it work. Otherwise, this was going to be a very long and hungry week.

At exactly 12:29 the next day, Herr Ness kicked me out for “Mittagspause”, and I began scouring the streets street in search of food. The first two restaurants I found were closed; that’s okay, one glance at the menu posted outside told me I couldn’t afford them anyway. Walking further along, I came upon a shop advertising schnitzel “to go”. But unsure whether that meant ready-to-eat schnitzel or the take-and-bake kind, I decided to keep walking, with my rumbling stomach and jangling Euro coins providing an unfortunate soundtrack to my day.

That’s when I saw it. Eureka! The capital “S” design that is a universal European sign for a savings bank! Against all odds, in this itty bitty town I had found a bank! Hustling across the street, I ran to the sign, only to have my hopes dashed. Though the “S” sign was indeed for a bank, it was for a “Fahrbar Filiale” or a mobile branch. So yes, there technically was a bank, but it only parked in this spot from 2:30 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 11-12 p.m. on Fridays. Just my luck.

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So close and yet so far…

Annoyed, frustrated, and increasingly hangry, I headed back down the street. Before long, I came upon a bakery, and these words on the window caught my eye: “Hotdogs 1,55”. I didn’t need to be a math whiz to know that this price was in my budget (and I didn’t have to be a genius to realize that I wasn’t going to find any other food), so I went inside and ordered a hotdog. I must have sounded especially pathetic because she gave me some cookies to go with it.

And so, for the last four lunches, I have eaten a hotdog, mustard, and cookies at the bakery. No, it’s certainly not the most filling, tasty, or nutritious meal of my life, but it’s already become one of the most memorable… and not simply because of the difficulty I had in finding it. I hope I always remember this meal for a completely different reason:

It reminded me to be thankful.

You see, God has been unbelievably good to me, showering me with His blessings and more than providing for all my needs. I have a wonderful family, incredible friends, and the chance to do work that I (most of the time) love. And yet, although I have countless reasons to be thankful, I very rarely take the time to express my gratitude. If I like it when other people appreciate me or tell me “thanks” when I do small and very temporary things, how much more should I take the time to thank my Heavenly Father for caring for me? Every day, day and in and day out, He showers me with His blessings, and yet I take most of them for granted. I accept the gifts without even stopping to recognize, let alone thank, the Giver.

Monday afternoon and then every day during lunch this week I have been reminded to pause and thank God. For His kindness, for His goodness, and for hotdogs. And even though it’s just a small thing, and I still have such a long way to go in cultivating a heart of gratitude, I can’t help but think that this small-town week brought me a few more steps in the right direction.

Alright, that’s enough writing for one day. Now I need to look up bus schedules. I should probably make sure there is one back to Berlin tomorrow… 😉

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The one place where I’ve ever had a “usual.” 🙂
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