Sunday, November 28, 2010

An island in time. In Chicago.

Scenic Starnberger See from the "unterhaus" (lower house), Landheim von Specht, 1963
The summer I turned 13, my parents parked me at a summer language camp, Landheim von Specht- in Ambach am Starnberger See (Ambach on Starnberger Lake), Bavaria. The kids in the camp hailed from all over--Germany, England, Africa, Greece, and me, the sole representative of the U.S.. We had individual tutoring and classroom instruction in German, and field trips to places like the puppet opera theater of Munich, were I saw my first, if watered down, Magic Flute. That being dairy country, we were given milk to drink that came (and smelled like it) straight from the cows. Yogurt was entirely new to me. It also had a bit of arome d'grange, and required spoonsful of sugar to be edible, even with sweet zweiback dipped into it. 
Photo labeled "Chapel of Ludwig" Starnberg, Germany 1963
At the end of the summer my father returned to the U.S. and my mother and I moved into a little apartment in a modern high-rise on Calle Enrique Larreta in Madrid, where we spent the 1963-64 school year. I was enrolled at the American School of Madrid, where there were interesting friendships to be had, including with my 8th grade classmate, Rafael Diaz-Balart (on whom I had an unrequited crush), grandson of the famous anti-Castro leader of the same name, and brother of Lincoln and Jose Diaz-Balart, both well known in American public life today. The administrators, teachers, and students were ex-pats and Spaniards with connections to America, and Cuban refugees and Americans accompanying their parents on business in Spain, such as me. Mother had a Fulbright grant to train teachers in teaching English (TEFL). For my part, as usual, I had my friends, my horseback riding lessons, and my adventuresome spirit in that country still very much under the reign of Generalissimo Franco. We had a car, and explored the Iberian peninsula widely and deliciously--Santiago de la Compostela, Salamanca, Sevilla, Segovia, Cordoba, Cuenca, Toleldo, Barcelona, Avila, Malaga, Torre Molinos, and Algarve and Lisbon in Portugal, were on our itineraries. It was an exotic place, like an island not yet caught up with the rest of post-war Europe: there were castles in ruins, wonderful, amazing food, and throwback rituals like bullfights and medieval Semana Santa processions. Acquisitive by nature, I enjoyed shopping for Toledo-ware, iron- and ceramic work, textiles, Spanish leather goods, and, with my own precious Agfa Optima II camera, took lots of pictures I considered interesting (and some, though now fading ever faster, are indeed so). 
The walled city of Avila, Spain, 1963 or '64
But among the things I enjoyed most above all, both in Germany and in Spain, were simply visits to any kind of commercial venture, including cafes and restaurants, delicatessens and groceries, drug stores, perfumeries, department stores, shoe stores, stationers, book stores, souvenir stalls, you name it, the goods were magnetically intriguing, so different from what I'd experienced stateside, new items to look at, or entirely new forms of things I was well-familiar with back home. At that time, Spain especially had one foot firmly in the prior half of the 20th century, but Germany also had not developed to anything remotely like the cosmopolitan place it is today.
Christmas display table, Merz Apothecary, Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, 2010
So much cool stuff at Merz

Yesterday, some 47 years after my initial European immersion, I took a stroll through Chicago's charming Lincoln Square area, and in particular spent a long time browsing in Merz Apothecary, established in Chicago by a Swiss immigrant in 1875. In 2010 it still flourishes, with a small storefront in the Chicago Loop and a robust internet trade. But nothing beats its original location at 4716 N. Lincoln. Because of conscientious efforts to retain the original look and feel of an old-style European apothecary, I was whisked feet first back to Madrid and Munich, 1963. What a sensation, what a pleasure to know all that has not been lost! Even many of the product lines (along with their many modern counterparts) --Fa, Badedas, Nivea, 4711, Roger & Gallet, Maja -- new to me in 1963-64, are still available on their shelves, some even in packaging hearkening right back to those halcyon days.
Sieben und vierzig elf, my fave!
Roger & Gallet, another old, old favorite

I don't know what this is, but it's awfully appealing arrayed on display.

Addendum: For updates on this post, see


  1. Thank you Veronica, I had been wondering where I was going to get my next bottle of 4711 (Did you know that Napoleon supposedly wore that cologne?) and have been hoarding what little I had left. So many things to buy and so little money. I had a shopping bag full of almost $200 worth of stuff but have whittled it down to $127. I had some birthday money that was burning a hole in my pocket. Thanks to your wonderful post and link that is no longer a problem and I have something to look forward to.

  2. Wow, lovely story! Would love to hear more about your adventures!


  3. Jay, I know exactly how good you're going to smell - do you think I should ask Merz for a commission :-)?

    And thanks, Jane - I had a culturally rich and adventuresome upbringing, and will share more tidbits as time goes on.

  4. I really liked this nostalgic tour into your childhood. I often do that myself but never had such exotic experiences. More please!

  5. I too enjoyed your account of your memories. You sure did have wonderful experiences.