Zurich —> D.C. —> PDX

September 8, 2015 at 9:46 pm (Uncategorized)

Shit, our vacation is over. Our final day was spent on a train from Munich to Zurich, with brief stops made throughout southwest Germany and even one in Austria. Hayley excitedly declared she’s thus been to Austria; she has checked it off her list.

 

We arrived in Zurich at about 5 p.m.; prior to arriving we’d had every intention of figuring out how to get into the old city and walk around a bit, our last hurrah. Instead, hungry, thinking primarily of home and the start of school for the girls and the return to work for us, we checked into the airport Hilton Hotel and holed up for the night.

 

But not before Dave and I ventured out one final time. With the girls verily drooling with pleasure over being horizontal on beds, eyes glued to phone screens emanating light from stupid, mindless games (Best Parents Ever!), Dave and I hit the outskirts of Zurich in search of a “take-away” restaurant creatively named Chinese & Fast. Trip Advisor gave it a great review.

 

Adjacent to the grocery store we first happened upon – so we (read: Dave) could load up on crap for the plane — we passed an Islamic center. Seeing it – which was clearly a thriving place, given the number of people outside and its full parking lot – reminded us of what we briefly witnessed in the Munich train station.

 

Sept. 7 was the day a huge influx of refugees from Syria were allowed in to Germany and Austria, via Hungary, whose government made it abundantly clear it didn’t want the poor, dispossessed, exhausted masses from a country that since 2011 has seen 4 million of its residents flee, according to a “New York Times” article published that day.

 

While waiting for our train to depart, I watched as a local reporter interviewed via an interpreter a number of Syrian-Muslim families who seemed giddy with excitement to be let in to a country that would have them, that would welcome them. I understand that Germany alone is welcoming 800,000 refugees this year, hoping to spur the rest of the European Union to follow suit. Likely, the majority of the 28-member-nation EU will not take Germany’s lead.

 

We were truly excited to bear witness to a phenomena in modern European history that we otherwise would only have read about back home, in some article printed adjacent to one about, for example, the U.S. Open, or forest fires. I’m not discounting the import of one of tennis’ greatest tournaments or the seemingly endless fires in the tinder-dry West. But being a witness to history was very powerful.

 

Alyssa expressed her thrill at Germany’s decision, and Hayley asked a number of questions about the ongoing ISIS-refugee-closed-borders issues. It seemed very fitting they’d learn such a current event outside the classroom only two days before the classroom is where they’ll spend the majority of the next nine months.

While I’m so incredibly sad to leave Europe and so moved to have been able to spend the last two weeks here, something I won’t miss (at least from our experiences) is the European construct of customer service. While in the grocery store – where the aisles were labeled in German, French, and the local language Romanische, which sounds like a very ugly amalgam of French and German – we received our telling sendoff.

 

Waiting in line to pay for our goods (after very careful label reading, relying heavily on my French and every last German vocabulary word [read: 10] I picked up on this trip), the checkout woman literally chewed out the customer ahead of us. She then screamed across the entire store for her checkout colleague to come join her, to figure out what seemed to be some dispute over a cleaning supply’s packaging and pricing.

 

The two women bickered gutterally for at least a minute, all the while the clearly local customer just stood there with her wallet open, waiting for the final pricing information. Dave and I could not contain our surprise at the very rude exchange we’d just witnessed.

 

But we recovered quickly as the first checkout lady then turned the focus of her wrath on us. Based on her new string of guttural speech, it finally dawned on Dave and me that the produce I’d selected (four random carrots, three bananas, and one nectarine) were to have been individually weighed and affixed with a sticker noting their weight and, thus, price. The lady clearly had pushed her tourist-(ra)dar power button and so knew we hadn’t a clue what we were supposed to do.

 

In her non-subtle way, she psyche-whispered a phrase that clearly sounded like someone clearing their throat while intoning “OH MY GOD!”, and she left her post to storm off and weigh and label every one of our burdensome fresh items. After she’d handled all of them, returned to her clearly horrid post, and rolled each one individually down her short conveyor belt, you can bet that, once back in our room, I washed each vegetable and fruit (save for the bananas) very thoroughly.

 

And Chinese & Fast was pretty decent. But were I to write a review, I’d note the chef there had a heavy hand with the salt.

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Cult of Personality

September 8, 2015 at 9:45 pm (Uncategorized)

In silence, we got into our car outside of Dachau and started off, away from the town that housed a concentration camp and the concentration camp that was placed in the center of a town.

 

Dave broke the silence by saying, “Let’s go see something from the better side of humanity.”

 

He meant Neuschwanstein, the castle in the foothills of the German Alps, about 90 minutes form Munich, that Leopold II built as an ode to himself and his romanticized version of the Middle Ages. It’s the same castle whose image Walt Disney coopted; it’s the regal chateau one sees prior to the start of all Disney films where the sparkling shooting star arcs over and above its highest turret.

 

Indeed, while driving through picture-postcard village after picture-postcard village on our way to Neuschwanstein, one nearly expects Snow White, her dwarves, the huntsman in the woods, Hansl und Gretl, and Malificent all to come chasing one another over rolling hill and swooping dale.

 

The windows of the villagers’ homes have lace doilies in place of blinds; the exterior windows all are covered in wooden shutters, their slats cut vertically; the trees are green puffs atop brown stumps; each village seems to have at least one brauhaus, as well as a gasthaus. A tiny post office could be spotted here and there, denoted by their square, yellow, post-office boxes with what look like town-cryer trumpets emblazoned on them. Truly, we drove through a Disneyland landscape, and it was real.

 

We arrived quite starved at the base of the castle. We’d not eaten since breakfast and though we’d lost our collective appetites at Dachau, by now – 5 p.m. – we were very hungry, willing to eat most anything.

 

The teeny “village” beneath Neuschwanstein is filled solely with places to munch and small stores at which to purchase very fun items, from Viking-style hats (what are they doing in Bavaria?), to women’s breast-pushups-en dresses, to cow bells like those actually worn by Swiss cows. I kept saying, a’ la the classic SNL skit with Christopher Walken, “I need more cowbell!” but none of the locals working the shops appreciated my humor, nor the volume of my voice. Schade.

 

It being nearly 6 p.m. on a Sunday, the small eateries were closing down. In desperation – and needing to wait a bit ‘till our daredevil bus driver took us up <> vertical feet from the foothills to the castle – I spotted a stall selling food. It was a purveyor of the usual: French fries, wurst in three different varieties, pretzels and cheese and a few other items beyond my ability to translate German edibles into English comestibles.

For those who know me well, you know I avoid gluten at nearly any cost, as well as dairy products. And French fries are a much-enjoyed though not-oft-consumed luxury. Never before had I ripped through a luscious – and heaping – plate of fried potato sticks as I did while awaiting our bus. With curry-flavored ketchup and mayonnaise, in the Belgian tradition of which the French make most fun. God damn was it good. Abandoning even for a moment my typical “vive la France” mentality sure was worth it.

 

Slightly sated on our scheiss snacks, we boarded the bus for the castle. The English-speaking German conductor clearly received his training conducting rides at Disneyland; we climbed the multitudinous vertical feet, zig-zagging all the way, at such a clip that our fries threatened to exit the wrong orifice.

 

The castle – rebuilt, though never completed – reached its pinnacle in the 1860s, about the time the Confederacy was trying to secede from the Union. How weird to consider that in America the Civil War was raging and slavery soon would die, while Leopold II was dreaming of inhabiting a time perhaps best known for the Plague.

 

Within the figurative fun-house mirrors of Neuschwanstein, we tourists only could tour through a few of the property’s myriad rooms and corridors, but the taste we got was just enough. All to the tune, via audio tour, of very likely the same English gent who’d accompanied us through Dachau.

 

From Mr. BBC, we learned that Leopold II was a solitary and crazy king who worshipped the Middle Ages and fashioned darkly painted room after darkly painted room after operas and plays set in periods hundreds of years prior to his very odd reign.

 

Delicately painted Romanesque arches hold up the ceilings, which are festooned with dangling chandeliers larger than hoop skirts. Murals in many rooms depict scenes from Wagner’s operas, particularly from his rendition of the classic story, “Tristan und Isolde.”

 

Swans were Leopold II’s thing. In porcelain atop pedestals, painted into frescoes, carved into wooden nooks and crannies, they appeared everywhere. Also everywhere were tapestries in deep blues, falling heavily from windows. The king had a jewelry box the size of an armoire. As high up as his castle is perched, he had the lone view of a fecund Alpen valley and lake, a vista shared only with his servants and those who worked tirelessly on upgrading his castle.

 

The dude was loonier than Looney Tunes. Mr. BBC tells us he died at 40, insane (no shit) and face first in a lake. The audio guide tells us, too, it remains unknown whether the king was murdered or committed suicide.

 

Upon exiting down, via several flights of winding stone staircase, Alyssa summed up in a pithy statement what we’d experienced within a 12-hour period: The result of what two bat-shit crazy men had wrought.

 

I am not comparing Leopold II to Hitler. But it was both powerful and scary to reflect upon what unchecked, unadulterated insanity – unfettered cult of personality – is capable of.

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D a c h a u

September 7, 2015 at 7:46 pm (Uncategorized)

I was unable to blog yesterday, which had very little to do with our late return to our apartment and my attendant fatigue. Rather, I felt catatonic both emotionally and creatively as a result of our self-guided tour earlier in the day of Dachau.

The concentration camp first opened in the early 1930s and was a place for the quickly rising Third Reich to stow its political dissidents. It was the first concentration camp created for the purpose of forcing prisoners to engage in hard labor. Soon, it became the place known for carrying out sickening medical experiments on its Roma/Sinti, political dissident, and, especially, Jewish captives.

At its end, in 1945, when the very confused American liberators finally made their way to the place, nearly 42,000 people had perished, largely via starvation, typhus, freezing to death, fatal medical experiments, and other horrid punishments. A very difficult film narrated by what sounded like an aloof British broadcaster indicates that while the camp was equipped with a gas chamber, it remained idle and it’s not understood why it wasn’t used.

Dachau was the first concentration camp I’d ever been to. I’d previously hoped one day to be able to visit Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz. After our couple hours at Dachau, however, I hope never to visit another place of such unfathomable suffering, sickness, revolting conditions, mass starvation, and nightmare anecdote after nightmare anecdote, far too many of them ending in an innocent’s death.

Having never before seen a concentration camp except as a dot on a map of the Third Reich or via pictures and film from a camp, I was unprepared for the fact that Dachau, anyway, was not located in some isolated meadow or expanse of field. That was how I’d pictured Dachau in my mind’s eye. Rather, Dachau is, and for hundreds of years has been, a town of regular Germans; today, its population is about 35,000. According to once source I read, the town apparently is trying to expand its population if not its tourist attractions.

How the hell could anyone visit there as a tourist looking for a good time, let alone someone wanting to move there, take up residence? As Dave somewhat accurately pointed out, people still move to and live in places in the U.S. South where slaves lived and perished and where their slave owners created and then kept our country’s “peculiar institution” alive and well for far too many years. Still, I say, it’s not the same to compare Nazi Germany to slavery in America.

Adjacent to one of Dachau’s borders is an apartment complex. A forest of beautiful trees lines another of its borders, opposite a long concrete wall. It felt entirely surreal to walk past a modern complex of small dwellings and directly into a former concentration camp; indeed the entire experience still feels surreal, upon reflection and about 36 hours since visiting the camp. How were there regular old Germans living a stone’s throw from a place that exterminated tens of thousands of people in a short period of time? How do they continue to dwell in a place forever haunted?

Part of the film we saw showed footage of the townspeople at the end of the war being forced to enter the camp’s grounds and look upon starved-to-death, piled-high bodies of Jews. The BBCesque narrator droned that that was the point at which the residents knew definitively that the rumors of what was happening in their backyards were true.

What occurred inside the barbed wire and beneath the lookout towers of Dachau is as unfathomable as what didn’t occur outside the cement walls and towers that rose well above the town and its scared shitless people.

Dachau is huge.

In 1965, the camp was turned into a memorial. Many of its more than 30 barracks were razed. Placed within the footprints of the excised barracks are long, rectangular tracks of millions of stones, all held in place within concrete curbing.

These myriad barracks’ “footprints” are bookended on one side by a barracks now called the “Museum.” Its elongated form houses the wooden “beds” in which the prisoners “slept,” the mess hall in which they “ate,” the rooms in which medical experiments (such as with hypothermia, malaria, embolism, and more) occurred, and where the prisoners shat and even attempted to shower. The camp was constructed to house 50 prisoners to a barracks; at the height of the war, hundreds of tortured people existed (or ceased to) in each of them.

And on the other end of the barracks graveyard (for that’s what the sea of contained rectangles resemble) are numerous religious memorials. To the Jewish dead. The Catholic dead. The Soviet prisoners of war dead.

I stood – on the ground laden with the same millions of crunching pebbles as those inside the former barracks’ footprints – and looked back, toward the “front” of the camp. The sky above this desolate, exposed landscape was a mixture of late-summer blue and early fall gray. A very chill wind kept ripping through the place. I was dressed in three layers and had my scarf tied not around my neck but fashioned like a hijab around my head to keep the bite from searing my ears.

How did anyone physically survive this camp, any camp?

Sickened to my soul, I trudged my way back to the camp entrance, to its bookstore. It seemed very strange to spend any money in a place like this (save for the audio tour, which I don’t recommend, as the placards all around the camp are very informative and thorough), but I really wanted to own a book about the Dachau Concentration Camp’s history, use, and rebirth as a paramount memorial.

I immediately found the book I wanted as my own and that I will treasure, which perhaps sounds perverse. Before paying for “The Dachau Concentration Camp, 1933 to 1945, text and photo documents from the exhibition,” I was curious what else a shop of this nature could possibly sell.

There were memoirs by survivors, “Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl” translated into myriad languages. There were academic books about the German government and the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. Also for sale was Judaica – Hanukkiot, kippot, mezzuzot. How odd would it be to use such Judaica – purchased at a concentration camp – in every-day life? Would it be a triumph that on an expansive plot dedicated to the extermination of the Jewish people one can purchase and enjoy with abandon a physical representation of Judaism? It didn’t seem possible; in fact, the sale of such items seemed very incongruous.

Even more incongruous – if not downright nauseatingly ridiculous – were greeting cards. Yes, greeting cards. At Dachau, where nearly 42,000 innocents were murdered solely because they existed, one could purchase a Happy Birthday card.

Incredulous, I picked up one to confirm for myself that what I was handling was a birthday card. I quickly returned it to its slot as if it were on fire. It felt frankly criminal to handle an object meant to denote a celebration in a hallowed place whose every stone screams death.

P.S. In reading this post, one might wonder about the girls and how they handled this visit. Hayley was terribly disturbed and after looking around only for a little bit retreated to a bench and played on her phone. Alyssa visited most every room and memorial and found it all a great addition to her personal WWII and Holocaust research she’s undertaken and been interested in since a very young age. We know that Hayley in particular will come out here and there with various thoughts, feelings, and observations about the place; that is how she processes the most difficult situations with which she’s confronted, and we realize this is so far one of the most wrenching in her young life. Also, Dave and Alyssa had taken some telling photos from Dachau, but I’ve not yet been able to upload them; I’ll add them to this post, later.

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Lederhosen: They really wear that stuff

September 6, 2015 at 7:17 am (Uncategorized)

It’s fairly obvious even from my very outsider’s vantage point that Munich is practically in a different country than Berlin. Granted, the Airbnb place Dave secured is in the countryside, about a 15-minute very speedy train ride from the center of Munich, but the rural landscape here resembles not at all the high-rise apartments and wide boulevards that ring the outskirts of Berlin. In fact, I’m having wonderful flashbacks while in rural Munich, as our 3rd-story apartment has a view of what looks so much like the view we had from our swapped house in Avelin, France, a “hamlet” of the larger city of Lille where we stayed for a month in 2009.

On my run this morning, I heard tons of roosters and ran by huge expanses of corn fields. I jogged past a church whose sign says it was built in the 13th century, and in fields adjacent to those bursting with corn stalks are row upon row of sunflowers that could make Van Gogh sit up and smile in his grave. I barely made it back from my run, as I couldn’t help but sigh deeply with each corner I turned; it’s a wonder I didn’t pass out. This is the kind of landscape I pine for and that I feel so incredibly fortunate to have experienced in the past and to be experiencing now. I love Europe. Maudlin, I know, but the truth.

I could do without the retail attitude here, however. I thought it was only the French who don’t like it when a potential customer fingers the wares, be they in their market stalls or larger stores. But the Germans here have proven me wrong. In the center of Munich — after we oooh’d and aaahh’d, at the stroke of noon in the Rathaus (City Hall) plaza, with all the other idiot tourists, as the functioning glockenspiel high above turned its infinite rings — we then proceeded to wind around narrow street after narrow street and duck into little stalls here and there. All of them were selling similar things: small cuckoo clocks, tiny puppets and marionettes, and things large and small resembling vessels for beer.

At one stall were beautiful, colorful, and square-shaped baskets with handles; we went to finger them and consider one for purchase. No sooner had Alyssa picked up the one she had her eye on than the woman running her al fresco joint made withering eye contact with Alyssa, who immediately replaced the damn basket. Even before we could turn around to promenade elsewhere, the basket-handler already had put it back where Alyssa’d found it, tapping it assuredly into place, perhaps never to be disturbed again. Schade. A lost sale and scared tourists.

For way more fun, we ducked into the one spot Dave had hoped we’d hit: The Hofbrauhaus which, according to its menu which I stole (shhhhhh), was founded in 1516 shortly after Bavarian beer and its special formulation was regulated, never to be altered, under decree of local law. The place was a mad house. As was the dress code:

No caption necessary

No caption necessary

Indeed, it says the following at this site:

“Folklore costumes play a huge role in Bavarian life, more so than in any other state of Germany. The saying goes that: “Clothed in a dirndl or lederhosen you are always dressed to perfection.” Folklore dress not only is and always will be a fashionable way to dress but it will always represent an essential aspect of Bavarian culture. Worn by locals to traditional Bavarian festivities such as the hoisting of a maypole, the Oktoberfest or on church high days and holidays, Bavarian folklore costume is also popular at weddings, birthdays and anniversaries.”

Turns out that at least in the center of Munich, the local men need absolutely no reason at all to wear all of or some of their “folklore costumes.” (Many of the leather half-pants come with what looks like an escape hatch in the front. Clearly, these are for men to easily access their bratwurst for sundry activities with said sausage. Upon further reading about this terrifically convenient feature, I learned it was the Bavarians in this particular region who created this barn door accoutrement. Such innovation.) We saw folks in various states of full or partial “folklore” dress shopping, snacking, walking along, drinking in the Hofbrauhaus, picking their noses… The things that we think should be relegated solely to Halloween parties were worn with incredible pride and bravado.

Worry not: There are traditional costumes for the women, too. But the women we saw who were donning their breast-push-upsen (I made that up) costumes only were those working in the beer hall (selling pretzels the size of toilet seats) or in stores specializing in their region’s garb. Kinda like our reaction to the ubiquitous suffix fahrt, we couldn’t contain ourselves every time a local yokel passed us by. In other words, we spent the entire day in stitches, except while in the Hofbrauhaus itself. Because that would have been rude. But trying not to laugh when the real, live oom-pah band struck up what seemed to be drinking song after drinking song became as hard as keeping in a fahrt.

Like taking our kids to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, we again might be taken to task on our parenting skills.

Hayley's incredulous face says it all. She commented that our small cat, Cocoa, weighs less than this liter.

Hayley’s incredulous face says it all. She commented that our small cat, Cocoa, weighs less than this liter.

 

We're so proud.

We’re so proud.

 

 

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Bavaria

September 5, 2015 at 8:28 am (Uncategorized)

A few observations about Germany:

  1. In cafes, hot drinks are served not just hot, but litigiously so. And without those little recyclable cardboard things that Americans are used to, to protect our delicate fingers and our lawsuit-happy psyches. Even I — who usually can remove warm oven racks without using pot holders, thanks to my Reynaud Syndrom condition — need to wrap a napkin or two around the “take-away” cups of tea or coffee. (The phrase here is “take-away”; if you say “to-go,” you get very furrowed-brow stares.)
  2. Their regular grocery stores suck. They are very sterile, with very unimaginative items to peruse, whether on shelves, in the refrigerator compartments, or in the produce aisles. Their corner markets, by contrast, are fantastic, filled with beautiful displays of their special breads and pastries, produce du jour (such as the largest figs I’ve ever seen), dairy products from the entire region of Northern Europe, and even protein substitutes for high-maintenance folks (read: me), such as tofu in a number of varieties. But, of course, this kind of fare isn’t as inexpensive as what one finds in a grocery store that offers a shopping experience similar to that provided by Walgreens.
  3. While walking around town — any city or town — look down. Dog shit is everywhere. And in the same way people don’t get out of your way, dog owners don’t expect — or command — their (off-leash, hanging-ball) pets to get out of your way, either.
  4. One needs a key to exit an apartment. In other words, the system is set up to purposefully lock yourself in. How dangerous is that? If, for example, one family member takes the apt. key with her to, say, run an errand, and locks the door behind her, the people left in the apt. cannot get out without that key.
  5. Germans insist on employing one of the funniest words in the English language and in any number of situations. Fahrt is tacked on to various prepositions (like ausfahrt, einfahart, wordswith25lettersfahrt, etc.) and it means things like exit, entrance, and Godknowswhatfahrt, respectively. We four have spent the last week dissolving into puddles of immature tears with each and every use of the suffix fahrt that we come across. And today was a red-letter day. We (read: Dave) drove five hours south in our rented Ford Mondeo from Berlin to Munich; during the lengthy and very fast drive (yes, on the Autobahn, there are stretches of absolutely no speed limit, and Dave was like a little boy, announcing at one point: “I just went 105 MPH!!”) we passed numerous Ausfahrt (offramp) signs. Every sign was a new opportunity to laugh like a hyena. And today we learned a new form of the word fahrt: Upon leaving a gas station somewhere on Route 9 heading south, the sign wishing us a good trip said: Gute fahrt! And every time we did, we were pleased to be keeping our promise to the road signs. Hayley, in particular, given her digestive system is again on track.

And just in time for our penultimate destination: Munich, in southeastern Germany. We plan to spend tomorrow in the main part of the city (as we’re in another Airbnb, and it’s on the outskirts of the Centrum, in the midst of farm land and widely spaced homes). On Sunday, we’ll undertake two excursions, one to Dachau and the second to Neuschwantstein. They’re likely to be in inexplicable contrast to one another, but we want to visit both spots and have no other choice in our timing, given our final destination, on Tuesday, is Zurich, Switzerland, from which we board a plane home.

 

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Domesticity auf Deutsch

September 3, 2015 at 8:27 pm (Uncategorized)

Sigh, the inevitable has happened: We have a sick child on our hands. We brought with us some Advil, all the vitamins Walgreens sells, Hayley’s inhaler for an asthma attack, and Alyssa’s EPI-PEN should she (dear God no) ingest a Dutch, Danish, or German nut.

But we didn’t bring Tums or kaopectate. And yesterday morning Hayley got nailed with the runs. They continue into this new day. Poor poopsie. Perhaps a poor choice of words, under the circumstances.

When I was 12, Mom and Dad took my sister Abby and me to London and Paris, our first abroad experience, and I fell in love during that trip with France and the French language. My feelings of love didn’t stop me from getting the runs while in France, and I thus wanted badly to go home. I preferred sitting endlessly on an American rather than a French toilet. I remember taking some horrid French remedy that, while curing the squirts, corked me up like a fine wine, and the plane ride home was uncomfortable and — er — unproductive, to say the least.

And now here we are, in Berlin, Germany, neighbor to France, at the dawn of Hayley’s 12th birthday. She would like to go home, too. She would rather feel ill in Portland than near Potsdam. And yet, we have Munich to go; we leave tomorrow, via rented car, for that Bavarian city about five hours south of here. Perhaps Hayley will have to belatedly share in Alyssa’s prior France experience when, while driving through the north of that country in 2009, we had to pull over numerous times near fecund corn fields so she could relieve herself during her own unfortunate bout of the runs. (Apologies for anyone reading this post during snack time.)

Yesterday, we agreed I’d stay home with Hayley; Dave took Alyssa to Check Point Charlie and its museum, and Alyssa tried her first doener, the Turkish specialty that is ubiquitous in Europe and that I recently learned indeed was created by Turks, in Germany, and not in their native country. Dave took Alyssa, too, to the Stanford in Berlin site where he’d spent the fall and early winter of 1993. It’s an area a good deal west of the heart of Berlin. They had a terrific day together and, frankly, so did Hayley and I.

In addition to reading a book to Hayley, napping next to her, giving her tummy massages to calm her cramps, and forcing water on her to ensure she remain hydrated, I did our host Claudia’s dishes and her laundry. It’s the least I could do given her incredibly generosity and hospitality for the four nights and three days we invaded her and her kids’ space during our Berlin stay. That woman is a wonder. But back to dirty clothes: Laundry here takes FOREVER. Everyone has a washing machine … but no one has a dryer; drying racks with clothes pins suffice for Europeans who clearly prefer their towels and underwear stiffer than boards. Despite the slightly uncomfortable outcome of the clothes, towels and sheets, hardened on a drying rack, the process of taking each individual piece from the washer and pinning each one to the rack actually is quite cathartic, peaceful. Fortunately, I had all day to do two loads; it actually took that long.

Today, Hayley still wasn’t feeling up to snuff, and Alyssa was done (as in D-U-N); she was very happy to stay in her jammies and read/be on her phone all day. It was her idea to send her parents off into the wilds of Berlin while she took care of Hayley. I asked about 1,000 times: “Really? You’re certain?” Alyssa was quite certain, and Hayley was, too, after, that is, we had a little chat with Alyssa about caring for Hayley and not pretending to be her surrogate mother. Dave and I left the apartment with the two girls literally snuggling in bed. It was incredibly sweet and we crossed our fingers that their momentary feelings toward one another would last a few hours. While on our walkabout, we frequently checked Dave’s phone for texts from the two of them, ensuring things weren’t gong south. Fortunately, all went well.

Out and about on our final full day in Berlin, I once again was struck by the constant reminders of this city’s horrid past. Ubiquitous are  memorials to the Berlin Wall (up from 1961 through 1989), to those who suffered in the former East Berlin, and to those who died trying to escape it (152 souls). Pieces and parts of the Wall are here and there; some jut up from the ground, others are literally etched into the asphalt, tracing throughout the entire city the outline of the Wall’s foundation.

Even in the center of town — between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag — small memorials are just there, either for one to consider, or for one to simply walk on by, perhaps not even noticing them in the first place. An example is a small but unbelievably jarring monument to the Jewish children of World War II. We turned a corner near a main train station, and there it was, a monument laden with freshly placed flowers, which had been created by a survivor of the Kindertransport.

His public art memorializes children like himself who were set by their parents aboard the Kindertransport so that they could live — and survive — elsewhere in Europe; a placard nearby says the vast majority of such brave parents perished in the camps. The statue also memorializes the children who indeed were sent to concentration camps but at the end of the war walked out of them, barely alive, but alive nonetheless. This piece was strategically placed on the site from which the very first Kindertransport departed Berlin.

Around such monuments are regular Berliners, biking or walking to work, bringing kids to school, shopping, running errands, walking their dogs (off-leash of course, the dogs’ balls hanging out everywhere [do they not neuter canines around here at all?!]). Both the locals and tourists stop to read memorials’ placards or simply stand by them, contemplating such relics from an era of one nightmare after another.

What would it be like to live in a city like this, in a country like this?

We returned to the apt. to find that had Hayley conquered the runs…and just in time: on Friday we leave for our final stop, Munich.

 

 

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Mommy, it wasn’t your fault

September 2, 2015 at 10:09 am (Uncategorized)

One final note about Copenhagen: The four of us have been comparing notes about what we like in the cities we’re visiting, and what we don’t like. In Denmark, we found much to look at that’s lovely, as well as great English translations that are laughable, but, as I’ve described, the natives aren’t fabulous.

As if to prove me correct in that unflattering assessment, I had a telling incident on the train out of town, to the airport. Our final hurrah.

We four were laden with our luggage. We each had a roller-suitcase and a carry-on bag. I also was carrying a small snack sack. Thinking myself clever, I balanced the small sack on the engaged handle of my roller-suitcase and slung around my right shoulder my overly large purse. It had poured in Copenhagen that day; our feet were slooshing in our shoes and our hair was shower-slick.

On the train, I briefly let go of the suitcase-snack-sack combo in order to grab a handle bar as the train took off from the station. The luggage tower clearly was poorly balanced and so the entire thing fell over with a *slam!*, some of the snack sack’s contents flying from it. Hayley, Dave, and Alyssa had their backs to me, as they were struggling their way into seats they’d scored on the busy car.

The numerous people around me commenced doing an incredible job of looking anywhere but at me and my bags. Their lack of eye-contact was impressive, nearly as laugh-worthy as The Black Cock incident. Not only did they avoid my plaintive gaze for help and the lurching luggage, but they did nothing but continue staring into the middle distance while I flailed in the speeding train to right my bags and then myself. If I could write a review for Copenhagen (as one does for, say, Airbnb domiciles), I’d note that I’d not desire to return. The train incident with its passive passengers sealed that deal.

On to Berlin.

When I lived in Toulouse during the 1992 – 1993 school year, I befriended a few Frenchies and a number of students from other European counties, including some from Germany, like Claudia Wagner, a Berliner. Claudia and I have remained friends these many years, and our family arrived yesterday evening to her flat for a three-day, four-night stay with her and her lovely children. Exhausted (and pissed at the Danes) but willing to try anything, Claudia suggested a pizzeria, and we were happy to abide. Off we band of seven went to eat Italian food al fresco, where we tried our best to order off a menu in both Italian and German.

Dave, with his terrific German skills, got on just fine. Sitting at one end of a long table at a very bustling restaurant, I tried to go it alone; the combination of English cognates in German and my French allowed me to successfully order my dinner. That was a relief after not having eaten for eight hours and having survived a near-Bataan Death March of a walk from the train station somewhere in Germany to Claudia’s place. It felt like we’d walked from Copenhagen. Turns out, though, it was only about a 2-mile trek, but with our luggage in tow, the cobblestone streets to navigate outside Berlin’s center, and the fact a heat wave was in full effect (while we still were wearing our cold, rainy Copenhagen garb) I was certainly ready for a terrific meal.

Today we did very typical touristy things: the Brandenburg Gate, the Gedaechtniskirche, viewing a few extant slabs of the Berlin Wall, Starbucks coffee. (When in Rome…)

The church ravaged -- but not repaired -- from a bombing during WWII and another built beside it

Gedaechtniskirche: The church ravaged — but not repaired — from a bombing during WWII and another built beside it

Dave had not returned to Berlin since his Stanford in Berlin program in fall 1993, and he was so thrilled to re-experience spots that meant so much to him then and that we both knew would make an impression on the girls. Particularly the Starbucks.

We went, too, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Information Centre. I’m not entirely certain I can articulate our experience there.

Open since 2005 and created via a 1999 mandate by the German Federal Parliament, the memorial is smack in the center of Berlin and adjacent to the site of Hitler’s former bunker. Nearby also are memorials to the homosexuals murdered in the war period, and to the Sinti and Roma, exterminated, too, like the Jews.

Among the 2711 concrete blocks

Among the 2711 concrete blocks

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On a plot 19,000 m2 (or nearly 205,000 feet sq.), it consists of 2,711 cement stelae of varying heights and, underground, an exhibit so raw, yet so beautifully appointed in its simplicity, that I believe it’s the first Holocaust-related memorial I’ve visited at which I cried.

In one room, via audio tour, you can view surviving letters written by those who perished while simultaneously listening to an actor read from them (in English, from their original Yiddish, German, Italian, Hungarian, and more). At one such stop, a girl reads the words of a doomed 12-year-old who was writing presciently to her father of her imminent death. Hayley turns 12 in only a few days. I nearly broke down listening to her words from 1943 and looking upon the handwriting of a prepubescent girl.

The aboveground stelae are reproduced below ground so that the entire site is like one giant cement pincushion, with stelae either jutting up from the floor, down from the ceiling, or straight out of the ground, into the atmosphere above.

Upon arriving at the site, an employee had kindly informed us that the entire memorial is appropriate for people 14 years of age and older. Hayley smartly chose to spend her time in one room of the below ground Information Centre, where she could click through some interactive and informative sites; she said she learned more about Anne Frank there. In the main exhibit underground, there is the inclusion of photos I’d never even seen: mass graves filled with recently executed bodies; a soldier pointing his gun at a naked, defenseless Jewish woman inside her own grave; a barely alive prisoner at Auschwitz among the strewn-about dead. Sickening. Beyond description. Beyond words.

And here, in the center of Berlin, walking distance from the Brandenburg Gate, is the country’s admission — to the tune of 500,000 visitors a year — of the unspeakable atrocities upon humanity for which Germany today takes full and unabashed responsibility. What would that be like to be German today? To daily live with the nightmare of its contemporary history, where people like us come here expressly to tour memorials to the millions it’s responsible for exterminating? Or to be one of the German employees of the memorial, explaining in myriad languages to its myriad visitors what they’re about to witness and hear as they descend into the Information Centre?

Germany didn’t have to make its country a fishbowl, but it has.

In Claudia’s neighborhood, there are a few heavily armed police officers who stand guard at two different spots: At the door to the home of Germany’s Minister of the Interior and, around the corner, at the entrance to a small synagogue that looks more like an apartment building than a house of worship and community.

Claudia’s son tells her he feels very safe in his neighborhood. I’d been feeling quite safe around here, too, knowing Europeans aren’t armed (save for their law enforcement officers) and that security cameras are everywhere. And I mean everywhere. For example, on the u-bahn, there is a yellow sign on nearly every car that depicts a single, wide-open eye and has one word stamped on it: “video.”

So imagine my shock when, just outside one of the u-bahn stops — and only mere blocks from Claudia’s apartment — my iPhone got stolen. It was during a sudden downpour when folks outside the station ran for cover within, ourselves included. Some nimble thief spirited my phone (camera, really) out of my zipped-up backpack without one of the four of us noticing. Hayley very kindly kept reminding me — because of course I was beating myself up over this incident — “Mommy, it wasn’t your fault.” But it sure felt like it.

Claudia later said that despite all the security, iPhones are a hugely hot commodity here and she hears with some frequency stories even stranger than mine. Oh well. One less thing to plug in to the wall at the end of the day. And one more reminder that looks can be very deceiving.

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When in Rome

September 1, 2015 at 8:59 am (Uncategorized)

Tomorrow a 70 percent chance of rain is in the forecast. So today became our day to rent bikes. I’d been happier with the idea of waiting yet another day to rent cyklers in a city that, like Amsterdam, is overrun with very nimble tall people on very beat-up bikes. Today the sky was clear, so we went to the bike-shop-for-idiot-tourists close to our apartment and rented four bikes from two Middle Eastern men who understood us a little bit and clearly spoke bits and pieces of about 100 different languages (judging from the way they sold bikes to us as well as to a family of four who looked Nepalese).

I was so thrilled that bike locks were included in the price: roughly $15/day/per person. That seemed like such a deal. So then we asked where to grab our bike helmets. The son of the shop owner explained that if one rented a bike helmet, the next customer wouldn’t deign to wear it, and so one can purchase a bike helmet, but helmets are not available for rent. I tried my damndest to excise from the visual field going crazy in the back of my brain our mangled family on one of Copenhagen’s busy streets, crushed skulls decorating the cobblestone sidewalks. Hayley gave a cheer; she hates wearing bike helmets. Dave looked at my very skeptical face and said, “When in Rome.” Off we cycled, me having small heart attacks every few seconds until we all eased into the flow of traffic and feel of our crummy (but quite operable) bikes.

Renting and testing out our bikes in Copenhagen

Renting and testing out our bikes in Copenhagen

Traffic patterns are different everywhere you go, but here it takes more than a bit to get used to. There are three separate lanes, one for pedestrians, a second for cyclists (including mopeds/scooters), and a third for all manner of cars and trucks. The traffic lights here illuminate red, yellow, green like ours, but they also have yellow lights that flash not just prior to a red light, but prior to the green, too. Upon the post-red yellow, the bikers anticipate the green, jutting out into intersections — in front of pedestrians and cars…and tourists on rental bikes. It’s incredibly disconcerting. And, the boulevards here are so wide in parts that sometimes a light flashes green allowing you to advance to the half-way point of an intersection, where you must wait on an island of slightly raised concrete before the second light signals you can pass to the far side of the street. This system allows for ample time to get stinging looks from fellow passersby and cyclists.

Our first (lurching) stop was smack in the heart of Copenhagen, at the Christianslot, or queen’s castle. Just imagine the fun Dave had with the Danish word for castle — slot — while referencing the country’s queen. Like a teenage boy, that one is. And I guffawed right along with him. Alyssa eventually caught on and now thinks her icky parents are even more super-gross. Hayley either ignored us or didn’t get it; either way, she carried on in her typical nonchalant fashion. We skipped visiting the interior of the castle (the girls could have cared less and Dave was reluctant to put down kroners on that one) but did take the elevator to the top of the tower — or tarnet — that is in the center of the castle’s facade and — at 106 meters (about 350 feet) — is the highest spot in all of Copenhagen, “topping the one on the City Hall by 40 centimetres,” brags its informational booklet. For comparison, Big Pink in Portland is 536 feet high.

Girls doing a handstand at the entrance to Christianslot

Girls doing a handstand at the entrance to Christianslot. The tower rises immediately above this facade.

At the tower’s top, one indeed gets a fantastic, 360-degree view of this sea-level city and its environs, which includes Malmo, Sweden. Alyssa decided that since she could see Sweden, we had basically visited there, too. She left feeling very satisfied. A bird’s eye view of Copenhagen is really a mixed bag. There are domes that resemble the onion domes of Eastern Europe (which I’ve only seen in pictures, not yet with my own eyes); there are red-tiled roofs, like in Italy; there are cranes and scaffolding everywhere (indicating either repairs or expansion or both); and there are a number of industrial-looking and uber-modern structures, too, such as the 1999 royal library, called the Black Diamond.

We descended the tower and were going to visit the adjacent royal gardens and former Royal Boat House, now the Dansk Jodisk Museum (Danish Jewish Museum), but decided first to get some lunch. Back on our bikes, we rode across the street to an area adjacent to Europe’s longest shopping street. Note the word “adjacent”; we like to shop and eat good food, but we like to avoid crowds even more and had been told that the winding streets near the shopping street from hell would be more pleasurable. And they were; the narrow, winding, pedestrian-only streets laden with outdoor cafes, small plazas, and little shops were beautiful and fun. All the streets in this section of town seem to circle back to the Round Tower, a 17th century observatory that today is the world’s oldest still in use. No, we didn’t ascend it; we were too busy laughing like hyenas at one of the food stands suffering from poorly translated English: The Black Cock seemed to offer every manner of chicken, but we simply couldn’t begin to approach it, let alone order from the lonely guy manning it.

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Instead, after Hayley’s pizza, Alyssa and Dave’s Indian fare, and my Middle Eastern selection, we got our Kim Kardashian on.

We ducked into a small, dimly lit, two-story salon called FishKiss. We’d read about it and decided it was a must-do. Well, it was Alyssa who’d read about it (note the Kardashian reference from too many memorized issues of “People” magazine) and who insisted we get kissed by fish. A half hour of fishes kisses cost less than a pedicure in the States, so…why not? Hayley would absolutely, no way, not in a zillion years take part, but the rest of us did, first showering off our street-dirty feet and then sitting atop a chair configured similarly to pedicure stations back home. But instead of dipping your feet into a tub of warm water agitated by jets, we were to dip our feet into tanks of small, frantic fish. It’s like jumping off the high board at a pool (when those used to exist): It’s always that initial leap that is so hard.

But, as the FishKiss literature shakily translated into English states, “The fish do not have any teeth and can therefore give you a ticklish feeling,” while sucking at your feet (and ankles, and calves…) and removing dead skin in the process. “Garra Ruffa fish removes effectively callous skin on your feet. It’s a bit funny… We call it ‘tickle-water’ with a smile on the lips.”

Kisses from fishes

Kisses from fishes

This experience actually was more than funny. Alyssa, Dave, and I initially giggled like toddlers when we first put our feet into the fish-infested tank. During our 30-minute “treatment” we slowly got used to the very strange nibbling/sucking sensation, and then we mourned the moment the spa lady told us our time was up. I must say my feet look and feel better than before FishKiss. Alyssa had the hardest time extricating her feet from the water and wanted badly to take one of the fish with her. Hayley reminded her, though, that fish die out of water. And Hayley later griped that she’d wished she participated, too.

Satiated by a nice lunch, lovely feet, and fond memories of The Black Cock, we returned to the Danish Jewish Museum, architected by Daniel Libeskind, of Polish-Jewish descent. Dave and Hayley sat that one out, and Alyssa and I ventured into it — past both uniformed and plain-clothed police officers armed to the teeth — and learned about Danish Jewry prior to and during WWII.

We talked with the undercover cop (clearly not the one in this photo), who said the Danish government mandated the high security at this museum as a result of a tragic and also very unusual Jewish-targeted shooting this past Valentine's Day. He said incidents like that never happen in his country and the force protecting this museum is taking away from security forces elsewhere. Oh well -- once bitten, twice shy, I say.

We talked with the undercover cop (clearly not the one in this photo), who said the Danish government mandated the high security at this museum as a result of a tragic and also very unusual Jewish-targeted shooting this past Valentine’s Day. He said incidents like that never happen in his country and the force protecting this museum is taking away from security forces elsewhere. Oh well — once bitten, twice shy, I say.

The Danes are perhaps most famous — in a Jewish context — for having hidden, helped escape, and saved nearly all its country’s Jews. Many fled to parts farther north, to Sweden and Norway. Many Danes took in Jews and successfully waited out the war with their hidden cargo. Prior to the war, most Danish Jews were entirely assimilated; in fact, one prominent Jew raised his large family as Christian, having had all his children baptized. I suppose that’s one way to ensure one’s Jewishness isn’t a societal scourge.

Anyway, the compact museum also included gorgeous ritual objects from Danish Jews’ 400-year history, just like those in any Jewish museum I’ve had the chance to visit in a number of countries and states. Perhaps this museum’s very best feature is the very structure of the museum itself. Libeskind explains in a pre-self-guided-tour video that when he was commissioned to create this new space (completed in 2004), he took into consideration the unusual history of the Danish Jews and Danes’ very fine view of them, and the incredible fact that this country’s Jews survived the Third Reich in unprecedented numbers.

Despite this positivism, it was horrid to be a Jew anywhere in Europe during WWII, even in Denmark; in 1943, with the Third Reich advancing, Danes helped their Jewish compatriots escape. As it says in the museum brochure, “The space conveys a strong experience of having to orient oneself in unpredictable terrain — like an immigrant arriving in a new country, or like a refugee from October 1943 seeing the Danish coast disappearing on the horizon.”

And it indeed is disorienting. The museum’s walls are set at fun-house angles and its floor is not level; I found it very hard to avoid vertigo during my entire time in the building, and I watched as Alyssa righted herself at various walls while steaming ahead of me from exhibit to exhibit. It’s simply brilliant, and I was relieved, too, to exit the space onto flat ground. Once again, Jewish history in Europe constitutes its own special branch of European history. In the modern period, it seems to practically define contemporary European history, if not life.

Our final day in Copenhagen: Canal tour.

Our final day in Copenhagen: Canal tour.

Next stop: Germany.

We will stay in Berlin with a friend and her two children (ages 10 and 4), so I may not be posting as frequently. The three of you reading this need a break anyway, I’m sure.

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