Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Germany. In which is recounted an aeronautic adventure in a hot air balloon.
Germany, July 2014
it’s been a while since I last wrote to you; so I’m pretty sure you’re with me that it is about time for yet another letter. Say, wouldn’t you agree that there’s hardly any mode of transportation more detached from literally anything than … ballooning? Anything more of an adventure (not only, but in particular of course, since we read Jules Verne’s “Five Weeks in A Balloon” back then as kids)? Exactly, of course not (unless you could arrange a zeppelin flight … wait, say: can you?). This odd aeronautic affection of mine – I know, I know.
Ballooning is a rather spontaneous venture as I just learned. It needs to be, because it is completely depending on weather, wind, and airflow. I knew we were going, I just did’t knew when exactly. So, that phone call from an esteemed balloonist last evening didn’t came completely unexpected. Telling me the weather forecast just looked great for the next day. Telling me that I should be ready. Needless to say: of course I was!
Ballooning also is a rather collaborative venture as I learned that very next day when we met the balloonist at a rural spot outside town. A small test balloon (yes the birthday party deco kind of) … well, actually two of those at two different rural spots outside town were sent into the air to get an idea of the current up there. That last little balloon flew well. And high. And quick! The balloonist hurried us into the car and – imagine that! – we started to chase that poor little yellow rubber thing! It was leading us right away to the perfect launch site. Now every hand was needed, everyone had to lend a hand to unpack the balloon and its accessories. To assemble that balloon and said accessories. The basket is unpacked, burner and fuel tanks are dragged along, the balloon envelope finally is unrolled and carefully mounted. And a huge envelope this is! As everything is attached to each other, a rather surreal scene unfolds: the ballon – now completely assembled – lies at its side, the burner roaring and spitting fire, slowly blowing hot air into the envelope … four people holding onto the billowing cloth as the balloon slowly rises. Well, slowly only in the beginning. As it fills with hot air, the balloon urges towards the sky, intensely pulling at the leashes like an exciting dog catching glimpse of some cheeky cat … So it’s our turn now to grab the basket’s edge and pull ourselves into the vessel before it is making off. Without us.
Ballooning also is a rather gentle venture (well, once the whole starting procedure excitement is over). Once up in the air, all of a sudden everything is slowed down. We are floating, steadily floating upon a landscape widely opening below us. It’s a silent and smooth, an almost contemplative movement. Often I hardly even noticed if and that we were losing altitude – only our suddenly increasing shadow and in particular the burner’s hissing when we the balloonist tried to gain some height gave it away. Oh, and one thing I’m telling you, my friend: this whole hissing burner thing is a pretty hot affair – definitely gets you sweating.
Ballooning is a rather incalculable venture, too, as one just is completely dependent on wind and airflow. You can’t really plan the route, there are only limited options to affect direction and duration of the journey. Not even talking about its destination here. But, admittedly, this is of course a large part of the adventure, isn’t it. Anyway, the journey is limited – if by nothing else but the burner’s fuel. So, after a good hour (or maybe it were even two of it – I completely lost any sense of time up there), we needed to look out for some decent spot to land. And by ‘land’ I basically mean: somehow bring this balloon down at the chosen spot at all cost. Seriously, that landing part is the most challenging and adventurous one of the whole venture! You’re aiming for some – preferably woodless – field or meadow, not striving against that reduction in altitude anymore (but actively helping it) … until you hear the first twigs tenderly stroke along the basket’s bottom side as you outpace that last row of trees in the way. A quick jump (of heart and balloon) and then it goes quickly. “Everyone grab something and hold on!” – some rumbling and rattling, field and meadow coming closer … and drifting past. An empty field road, more rumbling, a roadside ditch – and before you actually could make sure you’re ready … you’re down. Landed. Somehow. Trying to find a way out of the tumbled basket I had to chuckle: that ride ended exactly as it started – the whole balloon … lying on its side. And of course, it’s not over yet. Every hand is needed again as – still in a collaborative effort – the assembling process is repeated in reverse order: burner and fuel tanks are removed, the balloon’s envelop is detached and folded and packed. It could be over now, but – guess – it isn’t …
Ballooning is a rather tradition-conscious venture as I learned as well. An important part of everyone’s first completed balloon ride (and don’t you ever dare to call it ‘flight’ again – that’s (at least in German) totally against the balloonists’ code!) is a solemnly baptism: We’re kneeling down as a strand of everyone’s hair is cut and lighted – only to be doused with some soil from the landing spot and – of course – a bit of champagne. Upon standing up again, each of us is raised to aeronautic nobility and granted a new title (legend has it that this comes from an early law by Louis XVI of France reserving the whole ballooning experience to noblemen only, but I’m not quite sure about that one … well, makes a good story anyway).
Thus, my dear friend, while closing this letter I have to insist on being addressed as “King Jens, valiant of the air to the venturesome voyage in a balloon above the estate of Friedersdorf” from this day on and forever (and yes, I’ve got the certificate to prove this). Just saying.