It has now been six months since we left Germany. I wrote the first few blog posts while I was still there, but then the activities increased and time ran out, so I resumed the series after I got back to Canada. I had no idea at that point that it would take me half a year to finish it! But each time I have cleared a space in my life to write a post, I have had the opportunity to revisit our journey and reflect on our experiences, which has been a great pleasure. I am going to miss my Germany-blogging time.
I loved almost everything about our trip to Germany. It was both too long and too short, which means it was probably just right. I was enduring the worst depression of my life while we were there (more on that in the next blog post: it was caused by a misadventure earlier in the summer and was more chemical than physical), and that made the journey far more difficult than it should have been. I am extremely grateful to Arnie for bearing with me through it all. But for the most part, the daily excursions and attempts to get from A to B without getting lost were the distractions I needed during that time: it was the downtimes that were the hardest – the nights, the flights, other periods of inactivity. So maybe it was exactly the right sort of place for me to be at that time. Now that I am almost totally recovered from the depression and anxiety, when I look back on the events of August 19 to September 7, 2022, I remember them with great enthusiasm. Each time I write about a museum, a view, a cobbled street, a gallery, a train, a restaurant, even a hotel we visited in Germany or Prague, I wish I could revisit it and have a closer (or sometimes broader or more extensive) look.
This is the fourth major trip I have chronicled on my I Am All Write blog, the other three being India in 2011, Cuba in 2016 and Italy/Croatia in 2019. I am looking forward to the next adventure although we have not yet made concrete plans. My next initiative here online will be to revisit the India blog and restore some of the images from that trip that seem to have fallen off the Internet, and then I want to turn all four trips into little books that I can give to my grandchildren, in case they ever want to know what I thought of the places I visited. But I’m sure I’ll occasionally post other miscellaneous essays and notes on this site between now and our next trip as well.
In fact, my next post will arrive shortly after this one. In it, I will revisit and reflect on my adventures with psilocybin and depression earlier this summer. But before I leave this Germany series completely, I wanted to record a few final thoughts.
Germany Is a Wonderful Country to Visit
To be honest, I probably never would have put Germany at the top of my list of places to visit if I hadn’t been so keen to see a Wagner opera. Having converted to Judaism during my first marriage and stayed intimately involved in the community ever since, I had a feeling that I would be disloyal in the extreme, if not worse, to visit the country where so much unspeakable horror had been visited upon the Jewish people for so many years, resulting in so many horrific, needless and cruel deaths, including those of relatives of several people I know or knew and love or loved, and of millions of others as well. And to go there because I am totally smitten by the music of one of the best-known antisemites in history? With antisemitism on the rise throughout the western world, I was not only nervous of confronting this layer of Germany’s historical reality, I was engaged in a mighty battle with my conscience.
It is probably because of these hesitations that I found Germany so remarkable – in a good way. Granted, I did not have the courage to visit Dachau, which is very close to Munich, but we did spend time at some of the numerous museums and monuments in almost every city that have been built to honour the memories of those murdered during the Holocaust, and to commemorate the thriving Jewish communities that were decimated or completely eliminated by the Nazis.
In this blog series, I have talked about our visits to the New Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, the Jewish Museum in Munich, the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Of all of them, I think I felt most immersed in the reality of the horror when we visited the National Socialism exhibition at the Stadtmusuem (City Museum) in Munich. Visitors enter this exhibition by a separate entrance beyond the main facility and inside, it is dark and stark, and you are suddenly aware of what it must have been like to have SS troops walking through the streets of Munich and broadcasting over its airwaves. It is truly terrifying, as is reading the history of the events that led up to the dawn of the Third Reich. The fear intensified as I reflected on the apparently normalization of racial intolerance that is growing in so many cities in “democratic” countries today.
But quite aside from these many varied and comprehensive memorials to the Jews (and, in the case of the Berlin “Memorial” exhibit, the Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and those who were euthanized because of mental or physical health conditions), there are reminders of World War II and its precursors and aftermath everywhere in Germany – whether it’s Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the Platform 17 memorial (which we didn’t have time to visit) also in Berlin, or the 2012 installation Silenced Voices, which still stands outside the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. There is almost nowhere you can go in Germany’s larger centres where you are not reminded of the horrific events that took place in the first half of the 20th century, and this – from all I have seen and heard and read – is intentional. By putting these events front and centre, making them a part of the very fabric of daily life in German cities, the country has made its past inescapable. ((If you would like to contribute to the “remembering,” check out the Every Name Counts initiative, which is always happy to welcome new volunteers.)
To live, even for a few weeks, amidst these reminders, is restorative. It’s not just the memorials and historic sites, but the continuing reconstruction of so many buildings and neighbourhoods that were bombed to bits that serve as constant reminders of WWII. (The videos now coming out of Ukraine help me see how it must have been when the bombs fell – not only on Germany but in England, across Europe and elsewhere around the world.) I felt as though Germany has been accepting – rather than hiding or denying – what it was and what happened to it, with a view to not letting that ever happen again.
Sometimes I think that here in North America, we are too well buffered from the reality of World War II: especially as more and more time passes, we must take the steps required to seek it out in books or films, and we need to be taught it in schools, if we are to become even a little aware of that era in European history. But there, in that beautiful country, the past is everywhere. It is like the country is shouting “This is where it happened! No more!” It is a relief. (I am not suggesting that the populism that is gnawing away at the roots of democracy in other countries is not rearing its ugly head in Germany as well – particularly, it seems, in the north. I have been reading articles all year like this one and this. However, the authorities in Germany seem to be staying on top of outbreaks involving sedition and hatred, which is reassuring.)
Germany’s efforts to keep the past front and centre mean that it is possible for thoughtful visitors to put the Nazi era into context. A whole lot of interesting and magnificent (and some not-so-magnificent history) came before 1900, and there’s been a lot of “history” since. Germany is a clean, beautiful country, (very well organized!), with friendly welcoming people and endless sights to see. It is a country that takes preserving the environment seriously – during August they offered a transit pass for only nine Euros that one could use in every city in the country all month! It is also a very diverse country, with residents who, it is clear, have arrived there from all over the planet. (For some reason I found it disconcerting to find excellent Italian restaurants in Germany with German-only-speaking staff, until I asked myself, “Why don’t you find it unusual to find them in Canada with English-only-speaking staff?”)
A note I wrote on FB while I was on the road: “Germans drink a lot of beer. They walk around the streets with open bottles of it in their hands, and consume huge jugs in restaurants.” They also smoke everywhere outside, including on restaurant patios, which are jammed. There is far less obesity than there is in North America (I’ve always thought that the rise in obesity in NA was connected to the prohibitions on smoking) and many more people on bicycles, probably because the bike lanes are generous and make more sense. Maybe also because of cost and energy consumption. Younger people on bikes seem to wear helmets more often than older riders, but this is not a scientific report. There are scooters everywhere. A car did run into one of those right below our hotel window one night. No one was hurt, which was amazing. The police came and sorted it out.
End of totally unreliable report on German health.
Some Tips for Travellers
I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn German before we left, but online is no way to learn to use a language so I was pretty much in over my head when we got there. The attempt was beneficial, however – having a few basic words, and being aware that Germans run nouns together to form new nouns (e.g., die Qualitätskontrolle for “quality control,” or Orangensaft for “orange juice”) and capitalize nouns in the middle of sentences, and knowing that “ß”sounds like “ss,” made it much easier to navigate signs and menus.
Almost everywhere we went, English was spoken – often fluently or almost fluently. But even where it wasn’t, the people were friendly and tried to make sense of what we were telling them as we did charades-like performances to suggest what we were asking, with a few possibly unrelated German words thrown in. In Berlin, two people who were travelling (not together) in the opposite direction from us actually let a few S-Bahn streetcars go by in their desired direction until they’d helped us figure out why we couldn’t get a ticket out of the dispensing machine on our side of the tracks. And in Bayreuth, when we got stuck on a bus that had been diverted from its regular route due to a water-main break, the other passengers (none of whom spoke English very well at all) pitched in to let us know the best place to get off to begin our long walk back to the hotel.
These are a few things to bring (or procure right after landing, in the case of the SIM card) that will make your trip to Germany (and probably other countries as well) run more smoothly
- a SIM card so that you can make local calls and check the maps on the Internet without tapping into your life savings;
- a portable charger/powerbank for your phone: I generally only use a quarter of the power in my phone in a day, but when I’m travelling, I often run out of juice by early afternoon. Having one of these in the backpack is a peace-of-mind saver, and probably at times an actual life-saver.
- coins for washrooms. Almost all public washrooms are staffed and require at least one Euro coin, sometimes two. It’s worth it – the toilets are clean and well supplied.
Next Time I’d See the Zoo
Next time, the Berlin Zoo would be at the top of my to-see list. “With about 1,380 different species and over 20,200 animals, the zoo presents one of the most comprehensive collections of species in the world” (Wikipedia). Ironically, as I have mentioned before, it was originally a hunting ground.
“The beginnings of the Tiergarten can be traced back to 1527. It was founded as a hunting area for the Elector of Brandenburg [….] In 1530 the expansion began; acres of land were purchased and the garden began to expand towards the north and west. The total area extended beyond the current Tiergarten, and the forests were perfect for hunting deer and other wild animals (Tiergarten might literally be translated as animal garden). The Elector of Brandenburg had wild animals placed within the Tiergarten, which was fenced off from the outside to prevent the creatures from escaping, and was the main hunting ground for the electors of Brandenburg. This hobby, however, began to fade away as the city of Berlin began to expand and the hunting area shrank to accommodate the growth.” (Wikipedia)
The site was designated as a public zoo in the mid-1800s, and in 1914 an aquarium was built. The zoo and its aquarium had more than 3.5 million visitors in 2017. It is the most-visited zoo in Europe and one of the most popular worldwide (Wikipedia).
“During World War II, the zoo was hit by Allied bombs for the first time on 8 September 1941. On 22 and 23 November 1943. in less than 15 minutes, 30% of the zoo population was killed on the first day, and on the second day the aquarium building was completely destroyed by a direct hit. Of the eight elephants, only one survived, the bull Siam, and 2-year-old hippo bull Knautschke was saved from the gunfire in his animal house. Most damage was done during the Battle of Berlin: from 22 April 1945 onwards, the zoo was under constant artillery fire of the Red Army. Heavy fighting took place on the zoo area till 30 April, and safety measures forced the zoo keepers to kill some predators and other dangerous animals.” (Wikipedia)
The zoo is only one of the splendid things we did not have time to see in Germany. Next time I’d also see (starting a list here 🙂 ):
- Kurfürstendamm “one of the most famous avenues in Berlin. The street takes its name from the former Kurfürsten (prince-electors) of Brandenburg. The broad, long boulevard can be considered the Champs-Élysées of Berlin and is lined with shops, houses, hotels and restaurants. In particular, many fashion designers have their shops there, as well as several car manufacturers’ show rooms.”
I’d happily go back to visit or revisit lots of other stuff as well, but until I figure out the secret to eternal life in this dimension (and the ability to stroll through it without too much pain), I may need to move onto the next country instead of planning to return to those we’ve already seen.
And so, onwards.