It’s a 12 hour drive between Saumur and Hamburg. In the US, I’d consider pushing all the way through in one day. But driving in Europe is different. For one thing, we are driving on roads that we’ve never been on before, reading road signs in foreign languages, and listening carefully to our GPS, who, while all-knowing, describes exit ramps as “slip roads”. Add to that the different driving style of Europe – freeway driving here, as I’ve mentioned, is not a case of parking the car in the middle lane, cranking up the tunes, hitting the cruise control and sipping a cola. Oh, we are NOT talking about a spectator sport here! This is heads-up, adrenaline-fueled, watch the rear view mirror for flying Audis, get your ass in and out of the passing lane – crisply, I might add – kind of driving. I like it. It’s orderly, and 99.9% of the drivers adhere strictly to the rules. But it’s exhausting. By the time we got to Aachen, we pretty much fell asleep with our clothes on.
In the morning, I had the feeling I had been here before. And then I realized that on our first trip together to Aachen, in 2000, we had stayed at the same hotel:
2000 was the year that Axel and I were married. It was also the year that Axel judged the Sydney Olympics. And as was the practice at the time, European show organizers jockeyed to have the Olympic judging panel judge their shows in the months leading up to the Games. So we did a tour, and Aachen, as always, was the crowning jewel.
By then, I had traveled to Europe many times, for a variety of photo assignments, before meeting Axel. But Aachen in 2000 was my first big European dressage show. The Holiday Inn that we stayed in was within walking distance of the Aachen show grounds, and it was therefore the hotel that the officials and the “A” list riders stayed at. When we arrived at the hotel desk to check in, all around us were riders and trainers who I’d only seen photos of. I realized that even though I’d been the official photographer for just about every big show in the United States over the course of my career, this, in fact, was the Real Deal.
The bigness of Aachen was an eye opener. Two huge stadiums, with sell out crowds for both dressage and jumping. I was credentialed as press, but I was also Frau Richter (Mrs. Judge). So my dog tag was nearly an all-access pass, and I went back and forth between the two arenas, photographing and ogling. It was rainy and cold, so there was shopping to do as well: Aachen has big shopping, too. Which was a good thing, because it was July, and silly me, expecting it to be summer, I’d only brought one sweater…. Fortunately one can fix oversights like that at the Aachen show!
The caliber of horses was an eye opener, too. To win here, it wasn’t a question of just putting in a mistake-free test: the quality of every movement had to be high as well. I remember watching Farbenfroh, the chestnut horse of Nadine Capellmann’s, who was always on that fine line between genius and madness. He was probably the first of the “new” style of horse, the kind with extraordinary range of motion in the shoulder coupled with huge carrying power behind. His way of going was so different to me that it didn’t compute in my eyes, so when Axel had a break after judging him in what was a high scoring Grand Prix ride, I asked him, what do you do with that trot? He was grinning: there is nothing judges like better than to judge amazing horses. “Well,” he replied, “First you decide if it’s a 9 or a 10.”
First lesson learned: it’s was a whole different world over here.
It amazes me now how quickly this world became my new normal. Axel had, of course, been a part of it for years, had known many of the trainers, and had watched some of the riders grow up. But my understanding of the standards, catechisms and customs of the upper echelons of dressage began to be refined that week in the summer of 2000.
This time in Aachen, there were no crowds. The only people on the premises were those working in the offices beneath the main jumper stadium grandstands. The grounds looked so different, so pristine, practically bucolic. We gadded about, we posed each other for photos. We reminisced. And then we got in the car and headed for Hamburg.