I’m immersed in a deep wooden tub touted to be over 100 years old. Staring down at me with come-hither smoldering eyes and his signature sexy sneer, is Elvis Presley. I too, stare down at my naked body cradled in cloudy brine water and fight a desire to cover myself with the miniscule white square of washcloth I’m gripping. Steam radiates upward in tiny tufts and I push down on the sides of the tub until only my face is out of the water. I wonder if Elvis actually reclined in this very tub or if shrewd marketing decided that peppering the room with photos of his stay in Bad Nauheim would qualify this particular cubicle as The Elvis Bathhouse.
I shift, push my back against the tub and squirm to find the spot that will numb the pain. Water splashes onto the marble floor, healing spring water pumped into Badehaus #3 from the magnificent Art Nouveau fountain outside. The Empress Auguste Viktoria used to frequent the bathhouse during her stint as the last Empress of Germany, wife of Wilhelm the II from 1881 to the fall of the Prussian Empire and end of WWI in 1918. I’m not aware of a bathhouse named after her, though.
I’m in Bad Nauheim, Germany to visit with my father and his wife Anni, but this trip has turned into a nightmare. Anni booked the bath for me as another attempt to relieve the chronic and debilitating pain I’ve had since a week after my arrival.
I close my eyes and drift.
Two weeks earlier…
I disembark Lufthansa flight LH465 at exactly 10:50 in the morning as predicted by my itinerary. German precision at its finest. I’m stiff, dry-eyed and dry-mouthed after eight and a half hours in the air. The overnight flight doesn’t allow for sleep, although the cabin lights are dimmed for about five of those hours. Too many restless bodies trying to find comfortable positions. I fly because it’s nonstop.
I head to Customs. Why are you here, I’m asked by a young, handsome German man. Eyes narrow a bit as he looks at me, his poker face assessing. I tell him in German that my family lives her. Oh? Where? All over. My father lives in Bad Nauheim. Oh? You’re German? He squints at my passport, which clearly states I’m American. He notices the place of birth, Bad Homburg, a town just outside of Frankfurt. Yes. My mother married an American. Ah ha. Now the mystery is solved. They wave me through. I smile: Einen schönen Tag noch!
I head to the car rental kiosks and find Sixt, a German agency.
“Reservation for Lock, please,” I begin in German. A well-dressed young lady behind the counter swivels around, gives me an appraising look and answers in English. “How was your flight?” Inwardly I sigh and switch to English as well. “As pleasant as eight hours sitting up all night can be.” I give a bark of laughter. She smiles vaguely as she begins to look through the paperwork. “We have options: a Polo or a Fiat.”“But I reserved a mini-cooper.” “Well, we are all out of those. Fiat?” “Sure.” “An X, then. It’s a four-door.” “Sure. Is it like an L?”“I wouldn’t know, here it’s an X. Full coverage on insurance?” “No.” She gives me a concerned look. “With no additional insurance you can be liable up to 2500 euros. Partial insurance will only make you responsible for 800 euros. If something happens, especially if it’s your fault.” Her eyebrows are raised in warning. I decline it all and she repeats her dire predictions of dented metal. I decline firmly, now pissed-off, and hold out my hand for the keys, give her my best CEO stink eye. I sign, snatch up the paperwork and keys, head to the garage. Jeez. Don’t they know I know my credit card provides collision coverage?
I should have seen it all as an omen.
The car is fire-engine red. I play with the navigation system and plug in the address of the hotel in Bad Nauheim, ease down the curvy garage exit and hit sunlight. Deep breath and I’m on my way. Soon I’m accelerating on the autobahn, my nervous fingers tapping the wheel. Remember the rules: don’t pass on the right, watch out for speed limits (yes, there are), before passing on the left, check way down the road—someone driving 200 km will be on you in a second. I hope my X is a turbo—forgot to ask. I goose the accelerator and the car jumps like a greyhound into the race.Thirty minutes later I pull up in front of Villa Grunewald, a ten minute walk from my father’s modest flat. My nerves are prickling; I need sleep before seeing him. A quick shower and I climb between soft sheets, float into a fast sleep. My head begins buzzing, a persistent insect inside my brain. It’s the front desk letting me know my father is downstairs. Oh. I vacillate between exhaustion and excitement, pull on jeans and sweater and clomp down three floors, the afternoon sun flooding the elegant staircase stabbing at my weary eyes.
My ninety-one-year-old Papa, legs splayed, is standing in the sunshine coming through the large picture window in the antique-filled reception lounge. He has on a Russian fur cap and a black wool coat. Na ja, meine Tochter he says as he reaches for a hug. It’s only been early August since I’ve seen him, but it feels like an overdue homecoming. I tell Walter I’ll come down to his flat in an hour, after a change of clothes and a strong cup of espresso. I’m giddy about spending time with him, strolling through the glorious parks under trees of rich russet and yellow mantles, then resting over afternoon coffee while we try to converse. I have Google Translate to help with the big words. For everything else, we laugh and muddle through. After days of hoofing it around town, my father decides it’s a perfect time of year to get the family together and take a tour of Frankfurt on the famous Ebbel-wei Express. With Walter and Anni, my half-brother Michael, and seventeen-year-old grandson Niklas, we depart in an historic tram from its station at the renowned Frankfurt Zoo. In the late 1970’s two local artists were commissioned to transform an ordinary tram car into an apple-wine promotion on wheels. We are on it; circling the city, polka music blaring from a scratchy sound system. Painted in bold primary colors, the tram is a traveling billboard that depicts local points of interest and specialties and includes a large lebkuchen heart, along with Martin Luther in his floppy hat.For an hour we sip the local apple wine, eat pretzels, and gaze up at the tall skyscrapers of this major world financial hub. The Altstadt offers reconstructed picturesque history; the city was bombed to rubble in WWII. After a quick peek at Goethe’s home, we end up in front of a Pizza Hut for lunch. After, we climb in Michael’s car for the forty- minute ride back to Bad Nauheim. By now I’m feeling a tightness mid-back, right side. Oh, oh. I’ve been marching miles every day in boots not meant for walking. Damn vanity! I call it an early night and climb into my bed at the “Elvis Presley hotel.”Villa Grunewald is a small yet architecturally opulent hotel that hosted Private Presley when he was stationed in nearby Friedberg from 1958 to 1960. Constructed in 1888 in the Wilhelminian style— a tribute to Emperor Wilhelm II— it was, at the time of Elvis, filled with gilded antiques and old world charm. Elvis rented the third floor for himself, his father Vernon, his grandmother Minnie Mae, and two bodyguards, Red West and Lamar Fike. His mother Gladys had already died. The entourage eventually relocated to a rented private home after they were asked to leave when guests complained about the all-night hoopla. But the current owners of Villa Grunewald proudly proclaim it as Elvis’ home in Germany.I find the furor in town over Elvis interesting. He climbed off the troop transport carrier USS General George M. Randall in Bremerhaven along with 1,169 other soldiers and arrived by jeep in Friedberg, about two miles south of Bad Nauheim. In 1958, Germany was overrun with American troops, the terms of WWII augmented by the impending Cold War; some small towns had as many troops as residents. Yet, the celebrity of Elvis shook up any outrage in the German citizenry that may have lingered at this invasion. In his uniform, Elvis posed for pictures, signed autographs and participated in PR events. He recorded an old German folk song in English and German, A Wooden Heart. The frauleins all over the country swooned, and American military boys suddenly found themselves popular under Elvis’s lore. Today, there is a black granite stele just outside the hotel gate with a white marble relief of the King. At its base are always colorful piles of flowers, stuffed bears, love letters and photographs from fans. The European Elvis Festival takes place in August, covering a weekend close to the 16th, the date of his death. Elvis impersonators and fans turn the town into a love fest for a long weekend, and rock and roll is king. I don’t request #10, The King’s room. What I get is a tiny room with nondescript black modern furniture. But the downstairs bistro serves good wine and better flammkuchen, a local specialty made with a super thin crispy crust and layered with crème fraiche and whatever else the kitchen has to offer. For the first time in months, I sleep through the night and wake up slowly as gray light floods my room through the sheer curtains. As I sit up to check the time, I scream. Someone has taken a handful of stilettos (knives, not shoes) and rammed them into my right scapula. I climb out of bed and the pain intensifies. My right arm is almost numb. After a few minutes I’m hyperventilating in agony. I discover that when I lie flat on my back and push into the mattress, my neck tucked, it seems to numb the source of pain. I position myself and get on the cellphone to call Anni and my father. They rush over to cluck and speculate, concern etched in their faces. I’m scared and forget my meditative breathing. Calm mindfulness flies away as I choose to hyperventilate and freak out instead. In the next eight days, I see four doctors: three orthopedics and one hapless intern at the Hochwald Hospital emergency room. One doctor doesn’t even examine me; he writes a prescription for 600 milligram ibuprofen, cautions me to take one in the morning with breakfast and one in the evening with dinner. I stare at him in disbelief. He ushers me out of the exam room and tells me I have something serious, tells me to fly home and see my “American doctor.” This advice is repeated by the next three doctors over the next week. One prescribes steroids, another Diflonec (commonly prescribed for arthritis) and I convince one of them to prescribe a handful of diazepam. Anni comes to the hotel twice a day to rub Arnica on my shoulder and neck. My father tags along, the look on his face as helpless as I am. By now I find relief lying on my left side, with my right arm held straight over my head. This also helps when I walk, which garners alarmed looks whenever I wander out of my room and encounter another guest. Or perhaps it’s the way I look: unwashed hair, no makeup and a grimace of pain. Anni arranges Thai massage, acupuncture, and the healing Elvis bath.When I finally do get home to my “American doctors”, I will find out I have cervical radiculopathy, a compressed nerve, which then quickly resolves itself. Or perhaps the King came through for me, after all.
BIO: MADDIE LOCK. German-born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Lock has published an award-winning children’s book, lamented several times about her writing obsession on Brevity Blog, and has essays published in Gravel and Narrative Map. She is currently working on a memoir about her scattered roots, using research as a great excuse to travel frequently.