WHO: Renate and Jim Olsen, 70, of Wellesley with grandsons Nils, 13, and Tristan, 10, of Framingham
WHEN: Two weeks in July
WHY: ''We wanted our grandsons to have an introduction to a different country, culture, and language. We very much wanted to do that in a personal, low-key tour instead of an organized one," said Renate Olsen, whose family immigrated to the United States as refugees from East Germany after World War II, when she was 14.
RIGHT OFF THE BAT: ''One thing important to me is that kids know that not everyone in this world speaks English," Olsen said. ''We had this very interesting experience when we landed in Frankfurt. An English teacher had sent her students to scurry around the airport and look for foreigners to practice their English with. They went right to Nils. It was a perfect introduction. My grandkids are just good old Americans." Over the years, Olsen has taught them some German phrases. ''They were so keen to practice. They weren't shy at all," she said.
LOCATION, LOCATION: ''Instead of hotel-hopping, we wanted to stay in just a few places," Olsen said. She booked two apartments through the nonprofit tour group Untours. ''I recommend them without reservation. They have these ordinary but very comfortable apartments . . . located where you can make many side trips." Their first stay was in Kaub, a historic town on the Rhine River. ''They have these beautiful touring boats that go up and down the river, and we bought a pass. They're quite large and you can eat lunch on them. There's commentary in German and English, and lots of tourists. On the ride, every hill you see is covered with vineyards and on top of every mountain there's a castle."
INTERNATIONAL FINANCE: ''We gave our grandchildren a little pot of money, euros, so they could go to the shops, the market, the local bakery," she said. ''They liked how you just don't pick up a grocery cart, you have to release it with a coin, which you get back when you return it. It's all those small cultural differences; that was really the point."
FAIR GAME: ''For the second week, we stayed in a 14th-century castle that is still the homestead of a baron. That was really outstanding. It had a moat, storks on top of the chimney, and a crypt," she said. The castle was in the Bavarian town of Sommersdorf, which has 170 inhabitants. ''They had a little village fair and it was such fun to see what the German kids do for entertainment. They had many different games that consisted of tossing balls, and they also have different sizes of stilts and everyone gets to try them out," she said. Olsen was most impressed by the fact that ''there wasn't a disposable dish or glass in sight. They had a portable dishwasher and set it up in the barn and people came and loaded it up when they needed to."
RETURN TO ROOTS: They took a side trip to Neuschwanstein, the '' 'Disney Castle.' It's just absolutely magnificent. The kids recognized it right away." They also went to Dresden, and to her hometown of Goerlitz, east of Dresden. ''Half is in Poland and half in Germany, formerly East Germany. The kids loved seeing where their grandmother came from."
HIT AND MISS: The boys were relieved that German children eat snacks, too, Olsen said. ''They loved wiener schnitzel. Couldn't get enough of it. The things they didn't like so much were the vegetables, the red cabbages, the sauerkraut. They tasted everything but they didn't necessarily like it. I think the ages of 13 and 10 are great ages for traveling. They don't have too many preconceived ideas."