Frankfurt: An Overnight Layover to Remember
It was mid-February. Having capped off a vibrant and eye-opening trip to Budapest - my maiden voyage to Eastern Europe - I was due to return to France. Flight deals leaned in favor of an overnight layover somewhere, and after a bit of hemming and hawing, I picked Frankfurt. I’d been to Munich, a delightfully fun and charming city despite its frigid temperatures in November. But Frankfurt, Deutchland’s fifth largest city, was a new destination for me, so I hit “Confirm” for my flight and clicked it again for my Airbnb, which was graciously pas loin from the nearest train stop.
Of all the European cities I’ve seen, most have offered the privilege of shared understanding; language barrier was rarely an issue. In Germany, however, far fewer folks I encountered spoke much English. A circumstance like this, I’ve learned, is perfectly capable of going either direction, depending on the nature of the people with whom you’re attempting to communicate. Ja feel me? If they’re good-natured and friendly and even dare I say, playful, you’re in for a fun challenge of charades and sound effects to meet somewhere close enough in that blessed middle ground of comprendo! If they’re a bit more gruff, crochety, Popeye types, well...do your best to be respectful and keep that middle finger to yourself.
So Frankfurt. I caught a mid-day flight leaving Budapest Liszt Ferenc International Airport, and touching down at Frankfurt am Main at dinnertime. I’d enjoy one final, quiet morning “hurrah” at a coffee shop (Peet and the Flat White, if you’re ever there) and had no agenda or reason to rush my route back - the best kind of afternoon when you’re traveling.
And from the get-go, I got to enjoy some of my favorite little bits of a day flying the world totally stag. I asked for directions, and people (English speaking or not) were willing to help me. I enjoyed nice chats with folks at the airport. When I landed at the Frankfurt airport and needed to swap my Hungarian forints back to euros, I exchanged giggles with the woman working the currency exchange desk over my sad, sparse, and sadly sparse German. After I’d monied up and needed to find the train, two men working at a help desk who spoke very broken English doodled a map for me to show me how to get there. The three of us had a delightfully cheeky exchange, them teasing my pitifully scant German (I am proud to claim guten tag and danka ready to use in my back pocket ) and me thanking them for using as much of their English as they could (however bashfully).
Eventually, with the help of several kind Germans who recognized my baffled expression at non-English signs and offered to help me out, I found the train, managed to hop off at the right metro stop, walked through a cute little neighborhood a few blocks off the river Main - pastel houses glowing softly in the fast-falling sunset - and found my Airbnb for the night. Joerg (German version of “George”), my host, ran down the four flights of stairs (no elevator) to meet me when I rang, and helped me carry my things up the steps. He showed me my room, an incredibly cute, angular room, featuring a vibrant book display, a heart-melting view of the sunset in the Frankfurt sky, and a bowl of fresh fruit and German chocolates on the bedside table.
I asked Joerg how I should spend the evening - with only a blink of a 14-hour layover, I had a scant small window of time to spend there. He recommended rising at four in the morning to cab over to the airport and pulling out his phone and dialing a cab company, took the liberty of scheduling it for me in rapid fire German.
Any dinner recommendations? I asked. His reply was Gemalthaus, which translates to “Painted House,” named for the plethora of paintings that cover the walls and surround its patrons. Only a ten-minute walk from us, with a menu of authentic German fare (per my request), it was perfect. Joerg suggested a route that would take me along the river Main, which boasted a gorgeous vista of the Frankfurt skyline that glistened on the water. The streets were lit well enough that I felt safe walking there on my own, but he warned not to venture that way too late, as teenage boys were known to drink and shout insinuations to female passersby. Noted.
So I quickly showered and changed, grabbed my purse and headed out to follow the walking route Joerg had drawn for me. I’m so glad he showed me the best way to go, because with his help I really did get to enjoy as much of Frankfurt’s glowing features as one could in an overnight layover. I do wish I could have seen more, but I knew my time was well spent as I strolled the riverside cobblestone paths at a leisurely pace alongside other couples who were also in no hurry to be anywhere.
I then pivoted away from the river to head to the restaurant, which was tucked away on a quiet street, practically hidden behind one or two gates in a covered pathway off the sidewalk, so that you couldn’t really find it unless you knew where to go. I doubted whether I’d ever catch sight of it the whole walk over, until I saw its novelty painted sign that read (when I squinted in the dark) Gemalthaus. It seemed silent at first, but it wasn’t until I ambled down the alleyway and approached its hidden entrance when I heard a rising din behind lit windows and its front door. When I opened it and stepped inside my eyes grew bigger and bigger at the merrily packed madhouse that lay inside. There didn’t appear to be a single empty seat in the house, but I approached the host anyway, figuring I had to at least try after walking all the way over.
“Table for one?” quickly became my favorite one-liner on my trip, eliciting all sorts of reactions, from amusement to poorly masked pity. The range never failed to entertain me. But without hesitation, the manager scanned the room and asked, “Could you share table with others?” Why the heck not, I thought, and nodded, gawking around at the packed room full of jolly patrons, ciders in hand, the walls covered as promised with massive paintings, the ceilings speckled throughout with massive chandeliers made out of robust antler racks.
We wove our way toward the back and stopped at a long table with about ten people seated, with - lo and behold - the one empty seat in the entire establishment. The manager asked if they’d be willing to allow me to sit with them, and to my surprise and delight, immediately agreed.
I scooted into the empty booth at the end of the table, and looked around at the circumference of curious faces studying me with amusement, this lone American traveler unexpectedly joining their table. Normally a bit shy when everyone in a room or at a table is looking at me at the same time, I found the whole thing pretty damn funny to be honest, so off we went chatting away. They showed me what to order (frankfurts in Frankfurt, I was there for it) and I asked them what I should drink (apple hard ciders are a popular signature in Germany, I learned, so I had two of those).
They peppered me with questions, what part of America I came from, what I studied, where I lived now, what I did for a living, and what - on earth, they must have thought but were too kind to say - brought me this far from home on my own. I answered and elaborated all of them, asking in turn where in Germany they all came from, and learned that they were in fact two families, one of which was from the South, in Heidelberg, where they owned a crop farm. They were in town visiting their Frankfurt friends, who had gifted them with a vacation into the city, which I enthusiastically applauded, because what better gift to give your friends! I learned about their life on the farm, and marveled at everyone’s English, especially their fifteen-year-old daughter’s, who had no fear practicing hers with me, and I found myself wishing I hadn’t been so bashful practicing my French when I was learning it at her age. To quiz her, I pointed to items throughout the room and asked her to name them in English, which she did incredibly well, and we had such fun doing so. Her parents must have wondered where on earth I came from!
Of all the events that take place whenever I take trips on my own, especially overseas, my favorite is meeting all the wonderful people I come across every single day. That night, I went on to enjoy one of my favorite memories of the whole ten-day trip, sharing perspectives and experiences with several lovely people from a place quite different and far away from my own. Far more times than I can count, I’ve relied on the simple kindness of others to get where I need to be. I see God in these people, their acts of love and generosity extended my way, graciously devoid of bias or preconception, regardless of any of either they may have been exposed to against my people and my country. I will never forget them, this giant family of German farmers from Heidelberg with whom I clinked ciders and by whom I was reminded that we’re not all nearly as different as we tend to think we are.
After an exchange of warm goodbyes, I left with a full tummy and several new friends (including their fifteen-year-old on Instagram!) On the walk back to my room that night, I thought how short words fell to describe how I felt, but I’ll try anyway: grateful. Content. Pensive. Untroubled. Known. Loved. Happy.
Cover image via Assistant