The other day, my German wife and I rode our bikes to the Altwarmbüchener See, a small lake outside Hannover, Germany. We just sort of stumbled upon it by accident, and, as a result, experienced the weirdest bike ride of our lives.
At first glance, there appeared to be no one at the lake. This was to be expected, as the weather that day was menacing; the sky was overcast and the clouds were turning an angry shade of ‘turn back now.’ We rode past the little food stand and the paddle boat rental place, and approached the dock. Next to the dock was a small, asphalt ramp — no longer than 10 feet — which we used to walk our bikes down to the water. That’s when shit got weird.
Out of nowhere came a fat kid with no shirt on, yelling at us in German not to use the ramp. This was no ordinary fat kid, however — this one had no hands. I’m not kidding. His right hand ended at the wrist, and his left hand was little more than half a palm and the root of a thumb. Had he lost them in some horrible farming accident? I thought to myself. While in the womb, was he subjected to a strict diet of nicotine and horse tranquilizers? Neither my wife nor I had a clue, and we could only watch, hypnotized, as he scrambled to block our way by stringing a metal chain across the path. The chain extended from a post on the right and attached to the trunk of a large tree on the left. Of course he dropped the chain like 5 times, and normally I would have felt really bad for him, but this kid was a dick. The ramp literally went nowhere, there were no boats in the water and no one else around. My wife asked if someone actually owned the ramp, and he breathlessly explained it did, in fact, belong to someone, and it would be very nice if we were to get off of it.
We turned our bikes around and rode back the way we came, passing the sandy beach area and a large park. To our right was a wooden bench, and sitting on the bench was a surprisingly well-groomed homeless man. He wore spectacles, had a bike with a basket on the back full of garbage, and a half liter of beer by his side. He was reading a newspaper, but — and I shit you not — the newspaper was upside down. Maybe he was the world’s smartest homeless man, quietly honing his cryptographic skills in anticipation of the day his government calls upon him to crack a cipher intercepted from space aliens. Maybe that beer sitting next to him was not the first one of the day. I don’t know. But riding our bikes past him was like a slow-motion sequence straight out of a David Lynch movie.
Then it started to rain. Hard. My wife calls this sort of rain a monsoon (which she adorably pronounces “mohn-ZOON”), and the name fits; it was pounding so hard we were instantly soaked. My hands kept slipping off the handlebars of my bike, and I had to physically wipe the water out of my eye sockets in order to see. And as we neared the park exit, you know what we did see? A shirtless man, standing upright, rubbing his massive beer belly with both hands. He was just standing there, rubbing that shit like the god damn Pillsbury Doughboy. I asked my wife if this was a German thing: “I know your people are into saunas and health spas — is this some sort of water therapy? Does rainwater on the stomach help with digestion?” She just rolled her eyes and we continued to navigate our way through this paradigm shift.
We steered our bikes through the park entrance and were almost home free when we encountered the final oddity of the day: three men in hazmat suits carrying laser guns. Okay, I’m exaggerating on this one a bit. It was actually just a trio of hardcore nerds with metal detectors wearing full rain gear, but still! At first glance, they looked like they stepped right off the cover of some horrible sci-fi pulp from the 50s — Attack of the Atomic German Metal Sniffers. And let’s not forget, these dorks were headed to an obviously haunted lake in the middle of a torrential downpour hoping to find precious things. Lost watches and earrings and shit. Can you imagine the conversation?
“Why are we out here in this weather, Horst? My wife has coffee and cake waiting for us back home…”
“Shut your dirty hole, Gunther. Today is the day. I can feel it.”
“You don’t mean–“
“Oh yes… today we find the Buried Treasure of the Altwarmbüchener Carnival Freakshow.”
“But Horst, my wife says it’s cursed!”
“Your wife is a sow and a teller of lies! Now turn on your metal detector. You too, Norbert. A pack of twisted circus freaks left a fortune somewhere deep in the sand around this lake, and we will find it.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t get snippy. Hey, look at that young couple riding by…”
“Pay them no mind, Gunther. Only fools and philistines would be out riding bicycles in this kind of weather.”
Anyway, my wife and I finally made it home safely and life seems to have returned to an acceptable state of normalcy — probably because the moment our bike tires left the park, the damaged membrane of reality we’d obviously slipped through managed to heal itself and close behind us like a giant, invisible vagina. Needless to say, I’m not in any hurry to return to this particular lake, but my wife keeps talking about it. She wants me to give it a second chance, you see, but I’ve seen Carnivàle on HBO. I watched Tod Browning’s Freaks in college. I know what happens to uppity city folk when morbid curiosity brings them out to see God’s little accidents. If we return to the Altwarmbüchener See, my wife will sprout a mermaid’s tail and magically learn to play the harp, and my skin will turn white as paint as I am overcome with the urge to bite the heads off chickens.
“That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, step right up! For just a few measly coins, you too can see the latest additions to our little lakeside family — Gertrude the Weeping Mermaid and her circus geek husband, Ulrich the Halfwit!”
Click Culture Shock to read more of my emotionally scarring adventures here in Germany.