Tag Archives: fire

Paddy Get Your Gun

While visiting our friends Gail and George in their top-secret desert boondocking location outside Yuma, Arizona, I had the opportunity to fulfill a dream of mine.  Something that’s been on my Dreams List for years.  Nothing life changing – more of a guilty pleasure kind of thing.

Gail and George had other friends visiting them with their RVs – a retired tugboat captain and his wife from ‘War-shing-tun’ state, and a retired veterinarian and his wife from Colorado (names withheld to protect the innocent).  We learned that the vet (‘veterinarian’ not military ‘veteran’, at least to my knowledge) enjoyed pistol shooting, and he offered to take those from the group that were interested out in the desert to shoot targets.

Although I have had some experience with firearms, I’m not a gun guy.  I learned to shoot a .22 rifle around the age of 12 at the old Langley Rod and Gun Club.  I fired a shotgun at clay pigeons, flying disks that explode when you shoot them, at a Boy Scout Jamboree (I wonder if they’d allow that today?).  I have even taken the Canadian Firearms Safety Course which teaches gun safety, gun storage practices, and responsible gun use.  But perhaps because I’m Canadian, where handguns aren’t common, I’ve never fired a pistol before.

A small group of us drove out into the desert, which wasn’t far at all because we were already camped there.  We set up targets on a hillside, and took turns shooting.

Looking over the shoulder of a man wearing a couwboy had with targets in the distance on a sand hillside

Looking Down Range

Diane, appropriately attired, watched nervously.

Dinae wearing a cowboy hat and sun glasses

Diane looking on

I fired 3 different semi-automatic handguns.

Patrick shooting a handgun seated with arms outstretched on a table

Please ignore my cowlick, our shower was broken!

I couldn’t hit the proverbial ‘barn door’ with the first handgun, but a  red-dot sight makes aiming easy.

Close-up of hands holding 22 black target pistol with a large sight

.22 target pistol with a large red-dot sight

I couldn’t miss.

Patrick firing a target pistol with a large sight

Firing the target pistol

At this point, Diane was encouraged by the group to give it a go.  Diane had never held a firearm before, let along shot one.  Perhaps peer group pressure was a factor, but soon Diane was in the shooting position.

Diane seated getting ready to fire with others assisting her and looking on

Sweaty Palms

Diane cautiously fired a full clip.

Diane firing the target pistol

Little Diannie Oakley

Luckily this .22 had no kick, otherwise her form may have been an issue.

Diane standing looking relieved with white pickup truck in background

A very relieved Diane

The final handgun was this monster.  A ladies purse gun, still semi-automatic, and surprisingly accurate.  I was shocked that I hit every target I aimed at.

Patrick shooting a tiny black handgun

Dirty Harry?

Another dream fulfilled.  More of a whimper than a roar, but still plenty of bang.  Live Boldly.

Burn the Witch — Hexenbrennen

In Saxony, a province in eastern Germany, near the city of Bautzen lies the small village of Schwarznaußlitz.  It is the home of some family members of our friends Werner and Henny, whom we visited with them last September.  We enjoyed that time tremendously, and since we were passing by again on our way to Poland, we wanted to stop and say hello.  By coincidence, we happened to arrive the afternoon before the village’s annual witch burning.

Each year at this time Schwarznaußlitz and the surrounding villages burn their witches.  Rooted in antiquity, it is a major social event for the village and especially for the children.  Everyone gathers together after dark on the last night of April to burn a witch, and by doing so, usher out the bad spirits of winter before welcoming the spring.

Huge pile of branches and wood in a field

The witch pyre accumulating

The village saves all of its waste wood (tree trimmings, scrap lumber, etc.) throughout the year, bringing them to a designated space in a farmer’s field during the week before Hexenbrennen (‘witch burning’).  The wood is all pushed into a huge pile, upon which is placed the Hexen (witch).  Don’t worry, it’s not a real witch, but an effigy made of wood and fabric.  Sometimes, perhaps after a particularly bad winter, they burn more than one witch!

A 'witch' made of wood and fabric on top of the wood pile

The Witch and her Friends

Hexenbrennen is Saxony’s version of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis’ Night), a traditional spring festival that takes place on April 30th in large parts of Central and Northern Europe.  This date is exactly 6 months from All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween).  It is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who was canonized on May 1st (May Day) in the year 870.  The eve of May day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known in Germany as Walpurgisnacht. On this night, witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken (the highest mountain in the Harz mountain range) and await the arrival of spring.

The burning of people that were thought to be witches was common throughout Europe between the 15 and 18th Centuries.  Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 50,000 accused witches (about three-quarters of whom were women) were killed in this manner.  The peak of the witch hunting phenomenon occurred in central and southern Germany from 1561 to 1670.   Hexenbrennen may be a carry-over from this legacy, but it has long left its tormented history behind, and despite potential misogynist undertones, it is now a fun family celebration that we looked forward to attending.

We arrived around sunset with our generous hosts Andreas and Regina after enjoying some warm-up beverages at their home.  They introduced us to their friends, including the man who owns the house that we stayed in when we visited last September.  Everyone was very welcoming and the whole village seemed to know that we were visiting Canadians (it’s a small village and word gets around).  Many were glad to speak with us, using their limited English and my extremely limited German.

Andreas with his arm around Diane in front of the witch pyre

Diane and Andreas

The local volunteer fire department was serving food and drink as a fundraiser.  We tried all of the food, washed down with generous amounts of German beer.  I enjoyed the herring sandwich (strips of pickled herring on a white bun soaked in herring juice), but it wasn’t to Diane’s likingWe both really liked the wurst (sausage, pronounced ‘vurst’) and delicious schaschlik (a shish kabob of pork).

A man cooking food on a grill with a customer in front of him

Great food!

Soon after nightfall, the children of the village were armed with flaming swords and marched up the hill in a procession.  They approached the huge pyre, circled it, and threw their torches into the tangle.

Children in the dark carrying burning torches

Village children carrying torches

The fire started slowly at first, but soon grew into a massive inferno.  The heat it threw off was overpowering, and it was necessary to stand at least 20 meters away.

The burning pyre with the remnants of a witch on top

The witch burning

At some point in the proceedings, we climbed the hill with Andreas to look out across the countryside.  In the distance we could see 8 fires burning in other villages, each casting an eerie orange glow. By tradition the villages compete to amass the largest wood pile, something that when lit will be seen for miles around and be the envy of all the other villages.  The people in Schwarznaußlitz seemed a little bit dismayed by the fact that their wood pile wasn’t larger, and talked fondly of the good old days when it was much bigger.  They spoke nostalgically of the grandest pile they’d ever seen, in which village it was located, and in what year.

Also by tradition, the young men of the villages compete in a related ritual.  They try to sabotage the other villages’ plans by igniting their wood piles before the big night.  As a result, it is necessary for the young men of each village to provide round-the-clock security for their own wood piles from their inception until the night of Hexenbrennen, which is typically about a week.

The young men of Schwarznaußlitz take this to a rather extreme level.  Each night they protect their wood pile while sitting beside it on old couches.  They also erect a massive guard tower equipped with high powered search lights to monitor the perimeter.

A tower made of scaffolding and plastic in the field near the witch pyre

The elaborate guard tower with Diane in front.

At night the farmer’s field where the wood pile is located resembles a prison camp, with scheduled watches, posted sentries, and foot patrols.  Armed with pellet guns, radios, adrenaline, and beer, they guard their pyre with paramilitary bravado.

Special forces flag with words 'Mess with the best, die like the rest'

Do you think they’re taking this a bit too seriously?

Although it is a now a crime to burn another village’s wood pile before the big night (a huge uncontrolled fire, even out in a farmer’s field, could be dangerous), it does happen.  In a bold nighttime sortie, someone set fire to the couches of the security squad of the neighbouring village Singwitz.  The cunning perpetrators have yet to be apprehended.  I heard stories of the sneak attacks that the Schwarznaußlitz men had repelled, and how the assailants from other villages had repeatedly been denied.  At first I thought these stories were concocted or the result of overactive, beer-fired imaginations, but when on the final night I was told that they repelled 7 different groups of invaders, I started to believe.  Once again this year, the young men of Schwarznaußlitz were triumphant, and the wood pile survived until the time of its scheduled immolation.

Burning pyre with remnants of the witch visible in the flames

Burning pyre with the remnants of the witch

We greatly enjoyed our repeat visit to Schwarznaußlitz.  We would like to thank Andreas, Regina, Lilo, Stephan, and Juliane for hosting us.  We are very fortunate to know them, and it was great to visit them during Hexenbrennen and to participate in this unique event.

Zschaitz

We continue to head east across Germany.  After nights spent beside a fire hall near Frankfurt am Main and in a parking area in Erfurt, a town that we enjoyed last year despite the hubbub caused by the Pope’s planned arrival the following day, we stopped in a small village in Saxony named Zschaitz.  After 10 days of rain in France and Luxembourg, spring had arrived with a vengeance, and the previous couple of days were in the high 20’s Celcius.  My hayfever was also in full swing.

Our camping guide book (the Bord Atlas which is written only in German!) showed that there was a camping place for motorhomes with electricity and a reasonable price only a few kilometers from the motorway.  Although we couldn’t read the description, the picture showed a small lake (which turned out to be a reservoir), which appealed to Diane so we wandered off to the beautiful village of Zschaitz.

When we arrived, the party was just getting started. There were about 20 people gathered around a large fire that was being lit.  We approached the group and were directed to the ‘chef” (the German word for ‘chief’) who was brandishing a large pitchfork.  He spoke to us in German and we gave our standard response, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” or “Do you speak English” which usually prompts a little smile.  He called out to the group to see who could speak English and we were approached by a nice guy whose name we later learned was “Haiko” (I hope that I’m spelling the names correctly, because they’ll probably be reading this!)

Picture of reservoir surrounded by trees with a little beach

Zschaitz Reservoir

Haiko helped us find our parking pace in a gravel lot right beside the reservoir.  We were the only camper there.  Nice.  His son Kevin brought the key for the bathroom (it didn’t work but they solved that later).  We walked back with them to the party, which was near the place where the duschen (showers) are located.  Upon completing our tour, we stood talking with Haiko and Kevin on the outskirts of the party.  After a while, the ‘chef’ called out to Haiko to offer us a beer, a flavourful brew in a bottle with a flip-top cap that Diane really enjoyed.  We told them about our trip.  We learned about Haiko’s service in the German military and met his wife Janet.  We talked about Zschaitz.  We spoke briefly with several other brave people from the party who came up to us and said hello, though in most cases their English was limited.  Haiko’s English was pretty good (he called it ‘military English’) and Kevin’s seemed good also, far beyond what I would have expected of his 14 years.

We thanked them for the beer and returned to the camper where Diane made dinner.  Just after we finished, a friendly older gentleman that we had met at the party arrived with several kids in tow.  He spoke virtually no English, but came anyhow with his grandchildren to deliver us plastic glasses of ‘Jim Bean und Coke’, English words that he did know.  Here we also met Kevin’s sister Chantelle who is 11.

We returned to the party together, and enjoyed a great evening around the fire.  People were sitting on wooden pallets covered with old carpet or blankets.  They were drinking beer for the most part, but also brandy and Eierlikoer (egg liqueur), a homemade beverage of alcohol, milk, powdered sugar, and raw egg yolks (hopefully the alcohol kills the salmonella).  The Eierlikoer was served in small edible glasses (yes, edible) that tasted like ice-cream cones.  We’d brought our own beer, but they kept offering us shots of other things which we, as good guests, graciously accepted.

We really enjoyed talking with Chantelle, Kevin, and Haiko.  Chantelle asked all kinds of questions of Diane.  What are your hobbies?  What are you good at?  Bad at?  What is your favourite food?  Favourite movies?  Do you like ‘Twilight’?

Diane with her arm around Chantelle by the fire

Diane and Chantelle

I spoke with Haiko about the military and his travels, and about the people at the party, some of whom got braver with their English as the night went on.  Kevin told me about his football team, and I learned that they were playing a match the following morning against another village.  He invited us to the game and we were very pleased to accept.  This was one of those moments that as travelers we long for.  A chance to meet local people and, despite the language barrier, get the chance to learn about them and share with them.

Patrick and Haiko with beers by the fire

Patrick and Haiko

When Chantelle when to bed, she offered Diane a charm she had made herself.  As other people left the party, they came and shook everyone’s hands, including ours, offering the informal good-bye ‘tschüss’.  We agreed to meet Haiko and Janet in front of their home the following morning at 10:20, 10 minutes before the start of Kevin’s soccer game.  Haiko seemed very glad that we had shown such an interest in his children.  Then we too drifted off to bed.

Camper van sitting in front of the reservoir in a gravel lot

Our great parking place by the water

The next morning I ran through the village.  It was glorious and sunny and it felt great to be running, despite my minor ‘dehydration’ headache from the night before.  I shaved beside the lake watching my reflection in the window glass.  We packed up the camper van and arrived at Haiko’s home as promised.  He and Janet jumped into the RV and we drove the 500 meters to the village’s soccer field.  Kevin was already there with his team and ran over to say hello during the warm-up.  We sat at a picnic table with Kevin, Janet, Chantelle and her best friend (isn’t it great to be 11?)  We drank tea, coffee from the clubhouse, and Haiko and his brother-in-law also drank beer.  It’s not uncommon to drink beer or wine in the mid to late morning in Europe, especially on the weekends.

Diane, Janet, and another lady at the picnic table watching the soccer game

Diane and Janet watching the game

The game didn’t go so well for Kevin’s team.  The other team, number 1 in the league, was bigger, strong, and faster.  But the Zschatiz home team played well and kept trying even when they were down.

The opposign teams meeting at midfield.  Zschatiz in green and their opponents in red.

The opposing teams meet at midfield.  Zschaitz is in green and Kevin is #2.

We enjoyed the game a lot, and Haiko gave me a tour of the clubhouse afterwards.  It was filled with pictures and trophies of the village’s soccer club from years gone by, including important matches and visits by famous teams.  Haiko pointed out his father in one of the pictures.

White soccer clubhouse beside a green field

Zschaitz’s clubhouse.  Very impressive for a small village.

Kevin joined us after the game and we walked back towards the camper to say our good-byes. He told me that he’d already been reading our blog (I’d given him the address the previous night). With his parents’ permission, I told Kevin that I would write a story about our visit and his soccer match and post it on the blog.  Thank-you so much to Kevin, Chantelle, Janet, and Haiko.  Thanks to them, the ‘chef’, and the people of Zschaitz for making us feel welcome.

Patrick, Haiko, and Janet with Kevin kneeling in the foreground

Patrick with Haiko, Janet, and Kevin