Spies on the Biotonne: Reconnaissance in Lorrach, Germany


What happens when a Great Leap Forward survivor turned chemistry ph.D, a Chinese American millennial, a Kpop-obsessed teenager (aka lil’ Sis) and a tall white American  (my Company) go to a small, remote town in Southern Germany where the largest employer is a chocolate factory? Reconnaissance, mishaps and a few hilarious misadventures. 

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Lorrach is a small town in Southwestern Germany, has a population less than 50,000, and borders France and Switzerland. With hot summer climates from the Rhine Rift valley, the small town is known as the “Tuscany of Germany” and advertises itself to tourists as a Basel suburb. When we told our German friends, northern city slickers of hip Berlin, that we were going to Lorrach they all laughed and asked incredulously, “Why?” or included a few sarcastic remarks, “Enjoy your summer holiday with your family in exciting Southern Germany”. This included friends who grew up nearby.

So why did we – a family who at best nervously travels together, including my mother, who can’t seem to travel without some near disastrous event happening (lost luggage in Milan, missed flights in London, hospital trips to Shanghai) – decide after 4 years of international vacation hiatus that we’d suddenly all convene in Lorrach, Germany, where the most exciting place to hang out every day turned out to be the local supermarket which drew in crowds from Switzerland and France for the oh-so-much-cheaper (but deliciously fresh) German groceries?

Simple. Every year, hundreds of young dancers and choreographers from all over the world descend upon this quiet town like a cloud of locusts for…wait for it…one of the world’s most famous dance camps. Yes, we – along with hundreds of other visitors – were flying in from all corners of the earth, booking up every available Airbnb and hotel, to accompany lil’ Sis and her bebopping comrades to dance camp, and in turn, the poor city of Lorrach would once again descend into a state of chaos from its usual charming, small town lifestyle.

After arriving, our Airbnb host, a lovely man who was helping his 80-year-old friend rent out her apartment in a multi-condo complex, a place where we heard German mixed in with French, Italian and Turkish, gave us one instruction and one instruction only: close the backdoor when you leave the apartment. There were no other instructions, verbal or printed.

Town Center in Lorrach, Germany

The first few days passed by uneventfully, with mom and me hanging out at the local supermarket nearly every day (Heiber, Whole Foods has nothing on you!), terrorizing the poor butcher and check out ladies with our general confusion and mispronunciations of schwein body parts. Time passed quickly in our general state of relaxation. We would wake up, cook breakfast, gossip, walk to the supermarket, walk around town, gossip some more, head back for lunch when the temperatures rose above body temp, nap, and then go on evening excursions. I introduced mom to Anthony Bourdain, we watched Sound of Music to prep for our weekend trip into Switzerland while lil’ Sis danced her butt off all day and night with whom I imaged to be Justin Bieber’s choreographer.

Bebopping around the tri-country trails.

Of course with cooking nearly every meal using family recipes, an activity we enjoyed even when it raised the temperature of our already hot, air conditioned-less apartment to unbearable degrees, and with the open windows and doors (somehow Europe isn’t into screen doors), quite a few flies and other critters started becoming interested in our accumulating trash. Given that my Company and I had traveled to Germany frequently, we knew that trash was to be handled very carefully. I messaged our Airbnb host. He noted, “Yes, this is very important and a good question.” But unfortunately, he did not know the answer either and neither the owner nor the neighbors responded to his calls. We waited a few hours, but as the afternoon sun started to recook those thrown out schwein parts, and as we knew we’d be away for the weekend in Switzerland, we became worried that the apartment would become an entomologist’s paradise come Monday.

Now I had noticed quite a few bins with different colored lids throughout the week, but as our Airbnb host eventually also confirmed, each apartment building (there were 5-6 total in the entire complex) had its own rules. Because it wasn’t his apartment, he also had no idea what to make of the trash situation and offered to come pick it up the next day himself and throw it out in his bin at his house. No two apartment buildings shared the same system. Trash needed to be separated by day of week per apartment building into private yellow trash bags, bins black with brown top, bins black with green top, glass separated by color into the a whole other set of bins on a different block, plastic bins, paper bins, and then some mysterious, general trash aka, the “biotonne”. Not even the German military site with its detailed breakdown of what goes in what color bin helped.

At this point in our trip, we had already attracted a few curious glances and gotten yelled at enthusiastically for using the wrong washing machine. After all of this, I wasn’t about to offend 50% of Lorrach with misplaced trash, so we did the only thing reasonable. We created a mission where my Company would recon the entire area (he was, after all, the least identifiable compared to the rest of us), and when no one was looking, throw the trash out. Yes, we would commit our crime carefully and in secret.

So on the hot Friday afternoon, my Company stole away on his mission, taking photos of every trash bin so that we could figure out which was the biotonne. He came back 15 minutes after he set out on his mission, sweaty and flustered, and screamed, “They’re watching it! There’s a group of men sitting out there.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The biotonne. The biotonne is guarded. By at least 3 or 4 people. They’re watching over it. I just can’t get myself to go and throw it out there now,” he waved his hands.

I could tell he was panicked, so we carefully looked through the photos to find a different solution. It turned out, tucked away in the corner behind our apartment complex, was a separate biotonne and hidden from view. It was perfect. With me as a lookout and distraction, we set out again, successfully completing our mission. It appeared that with all its diversity – Italian, French, Turkish and now American – we had all culturally assimilated to Germany in a short time within the confusing apartment complex, in our obsessive separation and disposal of garbage.

Despite the small bloopers which turned into stories that we were then unable to tell one another without bursting into laughter, our time in Lorrach created some of my favorite memories to date. As I get older, I realize how rare it is for the family to meet and how finite our time together feels. It pulls at my heartstrings, and I am filled with a sense of both gratefulness for the moment to exist and dread that it will disappear all too soon.

It’s even rarer now to meet in a unique place with loved ones – one that forces us out of our comfort zones in various ways – to rely on one another and look back, smiling as we tell those stories: Do you remember when Mom was too scared to use the laundry racks in the lawn after her laundry incident? Or when Mom – brought up by the frugality of the Chinese famines and communist rule, then culturally shocked by the excess of American Costcos and Walmarts, became inexplicably attached to plastic ziplock bags in the environmentally conscious Germany? So much so that she refused to throw any plastic away, reusing it until I forced her? Or when she brought rice in lil’ Sis’ backpack out of fear that German rice just wouldn’t taste quite the same?

Or, how about that time we all sat on the rocks of the river that flowed through town, drinking radlers as Mars rose into the sky? Or when we trekked along the black forest together, taking pictures of orchards and cows, picking wild berries? Or, remember that night when we met up with our friends from the Bay Area who – ironically we find out after years of friendship are from Lorrach and we stay out until 5am laughing about who knows what, looking for any bar that’s open?

Those moments are the ones that make life sweet. Those embarrassing, ridiculous, laughter inducing memories are what I carry with me, days later now, when Mom and lil Sis have gone back to America and somehow the chatter seems quieter.

Ironically, it was in Lorrach that I first felt the exhaustion of travel. I missed the comfort of knowing what to do, having the wit and humor to save me from otherwise embarrassing situations. With my friends and family all around me, I missed having a a long term home. But it was also in Lorrach that I doubled-down on this mission of traveling for one year. I chose to take a one year sabbatical, leaving a career trajectory that I felt was accelerating in a direction that I was proud of because for no other reason than: it was the only time in my life I could imagine having this opportunity. The window opened, the air of adventure blew through and the shutters rattled with excitement. It is hard to not answer that call, no matter how much affirmation you feel in that other life you put a pause on.

Perhaps then, I am also my mother’s daughter. It was after all she, at the age of 32 (the same age I am now), who had decided to leave and traverse across the globe to resettle in a country that was foreign to her, leaving behind her family and friends for a year to be unsettled, an outsider, relearning culture, language and survival to pursue an unknown direction with an unknown outcome.

I cannot help this love for exploration. I know and have known the ticking finiteness of the life ahead of me. There is no other certainty in our lives greater than the knowledge that we will take our last breaths one day. And those final thoughts – whatever they may be – I do hope they bring back those feelings of exploration, the excitement of the window opening, as I draw my last breath, the wind of adventure blowing through the sails of memory, as I exhale that last breath, rattling me entirely with an excitement into the newest journey, the one no one seems to want to return from to retell.

8 thoughts on “Spies on the Biotonne: Reconnaissance in Lorrach, Germany

  1. You sure had a great time together in that little German town. The trash disposal section is just hilarious, I can’t stop laughing.

    1. I know, in hindsight it’s so funny, but we were really worried at the time! It made for some good memories.

  2. This a great story with your mom, and Dan aka Company, nice adventures and funny too. I can picture it all.

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