Summer on the Baltic Sea
It is an uncharacteristically hot day in October when I arrive at Katharina’s home in the Salt Lake Valley. Apropos to her industriousness, Katharina is preparing to make home-made ice cream in her old-fashioned ice cream churner. Already, she has whisked the sugar and eggs with the freshly-scraped vanilla bean seeds – set aside now in a large bowl.
“It is a perfect day for ice cream! I thought summer was over!” she exclaims as I set my things on the dining table and open my notebook. “Get comfortable, we will churn this later.”
“This day so reminds me of the summer days spent with my Mutti’s parents at their cabin on the Baltic Sea,” she says, as she combines cream with milk in a pan on the stove.
She glances over her shoulder at me.
“When East Prussia was still part of Germany after the end of World War I, even though cut off from it by the Polish Corridor, Rauschen and Cranz were popular summer resort destinations for the affluent. It was in Loppöhnen, a tiny insignificant fishing village, on the coast of the Baltic Sea between these upscale beach resorts, where the Eberhardts — Mutti’s side of the family — had built their summer cabin.
“Life there was idyllic for vacationers but hard and primitive for the people making their living on the coastline.”
Katharina slowly stirs the mixture in the pot, waiting for it to just start to bubble. Her attention is captured on her task, and I rise to help myself to a glass of water from the sink. I stand watching as she slowly stirs the egg mixture into the bubbling cream.
She wears her bright red apron over khakis and a light blue, blousy shirt. She looks happy, comfortable – so natural – still remarkably youthful at her advanced 87 years, and I marvel at her energy and capabilities. Industrious and imaginative – always filling her days with creative activity and productive pursuits — she taught her children well. All know how to cook, bake, sew, garden, preserve foods, tend the yard, and keep their homes spotless and in good repair.
“There,” she says, as she places the hot mixture into an ice bath, continuing to stir. “Now we can put this in the refrigerator until after our talk, and we will be ready to churn!”
These final preparations completed, we both return to the dining table, Katharina with a tall glass of iced coffee, as usual. As we settle in, she begins.
“My fondest memories, although ever shrouded in melancholy, are there, all glorious images indelible on my mind, their sensation imprinted as fresh as yesterday.” She pauses a long while, and I sit quietly as she gazes through the glass of the patio door.
“I inhale deeply the fragrance of sun-warmed pine needles, a soft carpet under my feet. A light breeze rustles in the treetops, bringing with it the muffled sound of the nearby sea,” she said.
“It takes me back…I have a basket, handed me by my grandmother – we kids call her Omi – to fill with dry pinecones destined for the small wood stove that warms the cabin on chilly evenings. I am a girl of about eight, entrusted with this task. It is not a chore for me. I get to go to a favorite place by myself, an extensive stand of pines above the beach of the Baltic Sea. A lone sandy path outside the village brought me here. I fill the basket quickly, set it down and lie down on the bed of pine needles to look up at the sky and the wispy white clouds that seem to be drifting through the treetops. I let the sounds and smells, the gentle warm air wash over me. I’m beginning to feel drowsy! I had better head back.”
“The cabin was built by my maternal grandfather, Opi, many years ago when my mother Nora and her siblings were still children. It has been a family vacation destination every summer. There are just a few scattered vacation cabins down by the beach. There is no train connection. From Königsberg we take the Kleinbahn – a small train — across Samland to Neukuhren, the closest station.
“From there it is a long walk to Loppöhnen. For a stretch the path runs alongside the tracks flanked by sweeping growths of flowering Lupines, bluish-pink to vibrant purple, but then it bends away, leading us by cow pastures. Mutti is pushing my grandfather’s bicycle, saddlebags packed to bursting, bags hanging on the handlebars. Often it is easier for her to take a short cut through the close-grazed meadows than to stay on the deep sand of the path. We children are barefoot, carrying our sandals. Full of energy and anticipation, we run ahead in abandonment. Then a scream! Edel has stepped in a soft cow pie, the green stuff oozing up between her toes. This is new for her. The same thing had happened to Hardy before — and to me — as well! We laugh at her and make her cry. Mutti calms her: ‘We can’t do anything about it until we get to the water, find some sand and push your foot in it to clean! No, you can’t put your sandals back on now — here, I’ll hang them on the bike.’”
“We finally reach the cabin. It is 1942, and this year my Omi and Mutti, my brother Hardy, sister Edel, and I have come. The cabin has no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. An outhouse was built as part of the house, accessible from the outside and kept free of odors. A bucket under the seat is the receptacle for our business and is emptied daily, the contents buried deep in the sand around the many thriving berry bushes.”
“Simple, responsible, and effective disposal, don’t you think?” Katharina laughs at the memory and takes a long drink of her iced coffee.
“We have to fetch water from the village well, which has a hand pump to fill our buckets. We need no electricity – the summer days were long, and the sun only slept a few hours. The two-burner cook stove in the small kitchen is fed from a butane tank. A couple of times during the week the village baker delivers fresh bread with his horse drawn wagon to the few families along the beach. Other villagers offer eggs and fresh fish, brought in by the fishermen early in the morning.
“After we enter the cabin through the small kitchen, we walk through the sleeping space with two sets of bunk beds, then the veranda — the living and eating area with windows all around facing the Sea and the setting sun. There are no dividing doors between the rooms. The only closed off space is the Kabuff. It is a room just wide and long enough for two narrow cots with barely a walkway between them. It has a window sized opening toward the veranda, we could always hear the adults’ conversation and laughter after we had been sent to bed. Hardy and I sleep in the Kabuff. Burlap sacks filled with straw are our mattresses — a coarsely woven sheet covers them, but it’s not enough to avoid being frequently poked by the straw.
“Edel, the youngest of us there, sleeps on a folding bed in the veranda. She normally is put to bed earlier than Hardy and I. Heidi, my youngest sister, is staying with our other grandparents, Oma and Opa – that is, Hedwig and August, in Kalthof.
“Warm afternoons we spend on the beach, just a short walk through the dunes, the sand white and warm, the waves friendly. We stay in the shallow water; we had often been reminded of dangerous and unpredictable cross currents that could take one out into the deep. Building sandcastles is a competitive sport and I must be watchful and not let Hardy get too close, or he could in an opportune moment ‘accidentally’ step on my work of art and ruin it, which he did often!
“And then there is our kuhle, made by digging a dish-like depression in the sand with a berm all around to keep the chilling breeze out. A kuhle is usually large enough to hold several persons at one time. On the outside of the berm, families would spell their name with rocks, and it goes without saying that everyone knows that as their kuhle. It is the perfect place to stretch out and laze in the sun for a while, or warm up after getting wet.
“Sometimes we could see war ships slowly gliding across the horizon. It was war time, we knew that. Our father was somewhere far away in Sarajevo, a place with an exotic sounding name. On Sundays my uncle Heinz and my aunt Toni – Nora’s (Mutti’s) brother and sister — would join us, and the conversation in the evening was all about the war and what was going on in the world, especially on the Eastern front with the Russian Campaign.
“In the following years a couple more cabins were built on the property, one for my aunt Toni, divorced, and my cousin Winnie; another very small one for Omi, with just a kitchen niche, bunk beds and a small table with two chairs. The family had their own kuhle in the dunes, the new cabins on one side, a stand of Alder just beyond the berm on the other and toward the sea, affording natural protection from the wind; this was a favorite place for the adults to sunbathe and gather for a chat. Once in a while, during our stay at the summer cabin there would be a violent thunderstorm, which we watched from the veranda. Mutti always told us to close our eyes and not look at the lightning — which we found impossible to do. It was such a powerfully overwhelming spectacle.”
Katharina paused. “I do so love to watch a thunderstorm with lightning, don’t you? It’s just so spectacular, such a powerful reminder of our insignificance.” I agree with her, wholeheartedly, and tell her of a recent experience of my own, out in West Texas, when the entire sky was shocked and splintered by the most breathtaking lightning bolts, reaching far and wide, and slamming into the earth.
At this interruption, Katharina rises to assemble the ice cream churner. Gathering a box of rock salt from the pantry, she continues her story.
“Yes! Mutti told about something that happened when she was a child there one summer. During a storm a ball lightning rolled right through the veranda without damaging anything. We could not imagine such a thing happening!” Katharina beams at me, incredulous, then turns to retrieve the bowl of ice cream preparations from the refrigerator.
“For us, the best thing about a thunderstorm was the following day at the beach. The surf would still be strong, clouds still racing across the sky driven by a brisk wind, the beach sand cool under our bare feet. But Hardy and I would be out there early, each with a small cloth bag clutched in our hands. We were hunting for small bits of amber that the waves had washed onto the beach. This was our jealously guarded treasure which we were anxious to increase, a competition between the two of us to see who would find the largest piece or the greatest amount.”
“There was a test to make sure that it was indeed amber and not some small pebble of similar color. You had to rub the sample vigorously against your shirt and then hold it against a tiny piece of newsprint paper. If the sample picked up the paper, it was genuine amber; if not, it was rock. In some of the bigger amber pieces – larger than two millimeter — we could occasionally find small insects embedded or a bit of vegetation. Those were worth bragging about!
“Some days we would stroll along the beach to Loppöhner Spitze, that was as far as one could go, a point with a steep bank and hundreds of huge rocks, polished round and smooth by the elements, a great place for climbing and jumping and finding all sorts of sea creatures in the small ponds between the boulders. Often, Hardy and I were allowed to go there by ourselves. What special times those were!
“Other times, there were long walks on the beach with one of the grown-ups, westward to Rauschen, about a kilometer distant. There was a boardwalk there, covered beach chairs (“Strandkörbe”) on the beach, a pier going far out into the sea, many small shops, and beautifully dressed people everywhere. It was here that I got my first taste of ice cream!”
Katharina is ready with the churner and gives me a giant grin.
“Let’s get to churning!” she excitedly cries.
Ingridpwrites: Fancy some homemade ice cream? See how to make it here.