Sulzbach Morning Hustle

Late for school again in a German village.

By / December 2012

The wisdom of Goethe, who said “we have enough time if we only use it properly,” is the furthest thing from my 12-year-old son Samuel’s mind as he begins his trek to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Middle School, late, again. He woke up in plenty of time, but got a little distracted playing with Jack, his little brother. Then he could not find his sport clothes or his math notebook.

Sulzbach am Taunus, the ancient village between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden on the autobahn 66 and of which my family makes up four of the 8,828 inhabitants, is quiet at this early hour in late November, with just a few lights peaking through the windows of narrow red-roofed row houses.

The commuter train interrupts the silence of the sleepy village. It barges into Sulzbach en route to Bad Soden, the next town over. As if reminded of the ticking clock by the locomotive’s screech, Samuel darts down the cobblestone road that runs parallel to the train tracks. A man and his dog, brown as a Milka chocolate bar, trail behind. If he had the time, Samuel would properly greet the puppy, letting him leap up and lick his cold face. Not today, though.

The Sulzbach Volunteer Fire Department, where Samuel serves as a junior fireman, is shut up tight. This is his third year on the junior fireman team. Several times a year, they practice simulated emergency situations. Inevitably you take your first bite of dinner or you climb into bed and the alarm goes off, sending you into action. Samuel is trained to get to places in a hurry.

Today he has to put that training to use or he will get strafarbeit, punishment for his third tardy. The first time he was putting final touches on his Egypt poster for history class. The second he got carried away at the piano. Both times he knew he was late but thought he could make up the time.

As he crosses a small bridge over the Sulzbach, the stream for which the town is named, he glances over at the slow moving water. The water moves quicker, louder, in spring and summer. In the colder months, the frogs vanish. Where do they go? Samuel resists the urge to stop and inquire.

On nearby farmland, a rooster announces the approach of daylight as a flock of backpacked kids overtake Samuel on their bikes. Gone, too, are the kids who crowd around the pole that serves as the bus stop. They should be there waiting, their music blasting through their headphones (“Op op op op oppan Gangnam Style”). But they, too, are in advance.

Samuel begins to wonder what his strafarbeit will be, to clean the classroom or worse, the bathrooms. At the very least, he expects a good chewing from the teacher. He hurries on. Under the pewter sky, the town is coming alive. Adults crowd the sidewalk. Bicyclers weave through traffic. S-bahns, Germany’s fast subway-type trains, shuttle villagers into downtown Frankfurt, to school, to work, to those tall buildings that form the Frankfurt skyline, which some have taken to calling “Mainhattan.”

Samuel tugs his cap over his ears and keeps walking. Out of habit, he pulls up his anorak sleeve to check his watch but it has shown the same hour for days now, ever since he broke it during a wiffle ball game at the park. He used to have a cell phone but left the device in his pocket and the washing machine fried it.

The baked apple pastries from a kiosk on Main Street smell divine, but there is no time to stop and buy one. He knows that if he gets in trouble at school, trouble will follow at home, too. His Nintendo 3DS might be taken away and most likely he will not get to go ice-skating with friends on Saturday. He is so looking forward to skating; he has never been before.

He crosses Hauptstrasse, leaving behind commuters buying train tickets, cigarettes, and coffee. He hits the stairs quickly and jolts over the walking bridge that spans the big highway. On the other side, he takes the trail into the trees. He is close now but doesn’t slacken his pace.

Squirrels are scouting out the last of the acorns. A runner wearing thermal body-hugging Lycra approaches the Eichwald (Oak Forest) with feet pounding the pathway of chipped wood. For a few steps, Samuel tries to race the runner, who is only warming up, and hangs with him until the man rounds the curve, accelerating deeper into the forest. A group of hikers, most likely headed up the trailhead into the wooded Taunus Mountains, step out of their car. An icy drizzle has begun to fall. With the rain and the fog, the rocks could be quite precarious today. “Morgen!” Samuel calls out to them and they nod as he passes by.

At the front gate of the school, Samuel is encouraged by what he sees. Quite a few kids are still streaming up the path from the bus stop.

“Yes!” he hollers out in English as he makes his final sprint through the front doors. He collapses into his desk in Frau Farr’s classroom just as the bell rings. He will get to keep his Nintendo 3DS after all. He will get to go ice-skating. There will be no strafarbeit, not today anyway. Tomorrow, he promises himself, he will leave a little earlier.


Tara Thomas, a contributor to EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Sulzbach am Taunus.