Now that fall is firmly underway, I’m sorting through over 700 photos that I took in Germany in July. Summer means travel for many of us who can find the funds to do so. For my partner Mick, a college professor and scientist, summer travel sometimes involves going to conferences where he can give a talk and have part of his travel expenses paid for in return. Those conferences happen all over the world.
And that is how we ended up going to Germany this year. Mick gave a talk at an equine research conference that was held in Hannover. We took our 20-year-old daughter Abby with us.
A few months before we left, we talked about what we each wanted to see, chose two other cities in addition to Hannover, and booked rooms. We decided to wrap vacation time around the conference, which meant we flew into Frankfurt, took a train to Koblenz and stayed in that area for a few days, took another train to Hannover for the conference, then took one last train to Berlin where we spent another several days. Three very different places in Germany with three distinct atmospheres offered us what we hoped would be a broader sense of what Germany is like as a country. My friend Rut, who is from Germany and now lives here in the Midwest, tried to help me prepare by talking to me about her experiences as a German resident and by loaning me a book about German culture. And my father, who was half German and grew up speaking German at home when he was very young, offered me a good dose of German temperament, if I can be so generalized about it, while I was growing up.
But nothing really prepares a traveler for everything and that’s part of the beauty of travel. You have to go to a place to know what it is like. You can read all you want, watch movies, research on the internet, but there is nothing like being there surrounded by new sights, sounds, smells, foods, and people who are nothing like you.
One of the things that I felt in Germany and have felt in other non-English speaking countries is how limited my language skills are. Sure, I took French in high school and college, had a little bit of German in middle school, had a smattering of Spanish in high school. But I never learned to speak any of those languages as well as most of the Germans I came across could speak English. How embarrassing. I tried to speak a few words of German, picked up the names of things on menus that I wanted to eat again, recognized things that are close to English (like bier and wasser), and could say please and thank you. And I was grateful that so many people spoke English and, if they minded, didn’t show me any annoyance. There were a few times when I bumbled around with people who spoke no English, especially on the east side of Berlin where an old man who sold metro train tickets nearly did me in. We could not communicate at all and he was not happy with me, although I did eventually find a way to get the metro tickets.
Language barriers aside, Germany was – is – an easy, interesting, and beautiful place to visit. We found using the trains easy. The places we stayed were clean, well-run. People were usually kind. Most of the food was good. The beer and wine were fantastic. But what has stuck with me the most from the trip was the walking tour we took in Berlin.
Berlin felt like a city that is still divided in many ways. On our walking tour, led by a guy who lived there who also worked as an artist and studied history and philosophy, a small group of us spent hours on a Sunday walking all over the Mitte area of Berlin. We met outside the Hauptbahnhof, the huge train station in the middle of Berlin, where other walking tours also assembled. There were tours in German, English, Spanish, and other languages. Our little group, which included people from the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere, was small enough that we easily wandered down streets, around monuments, and gathered for stories without much fuss. Our guide, whose military-style jacket, cap and little beard reminded me of Che Guevara, offered so much information that I knew I’d only remember a fraction of it. We went by the German government buildings, the Brandenburg Gate, stood over the place where Hitler’s bunker is firmly sealed off, saw Soviet tank monuments and learned how Checkpoint Charlie has been moved from its original spot for tourists. We learned about Soviet architecture and bits of the Wall that still stand, visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, learned that parts of the Tiergarten are frequented by nudists and not to be alarmed if we saw someone unclothed. We were grateful for that little bit of humor amidst all the serious sights we saw. Museum Island was an overload of beautiful architecture that housed museums and churches.
By the time we finished our tour, I think all three of us were overwhelmed. So, naturally, we found a place to sit down and have something to eat and drink. We happened to sit next to a couple of guys from Australia who were happy to tell us what they had just eaten and what was good on the menu. We all relaxed for a little while.
But in the following days, the stories about the Berlin Wall and those who tried to run from East to West haunted me. I could not get enough about that part of Berlin’s history. We visited the Berlin Wall Memorial, read every single thing that explained how the Wall appeared overnight, divided families and friends, and grew from relatively simple razor wire into two cement walls with a death strip between and how soldiers from the East earned a day off with pay if they shot someone trying to escape. We visited the East Side Gallery, a segment of the Wall that has artwork all along the side that faces into East Berlin in celebration of when the Wall came down. We walked and walked and walked. We discovered that it wasn’t as easy to talk to people on the east side, that food was cheaper there, and that there were things being repaired everywhere.
We did other things in Berlin, like visit the Berlin Zoo and an amazing musical instrument museum that had instruments that were hundreds of years old. We found the Hard Rock Cafe and ate familiar food, did some shopping. But the Wall’s influence was everywhere.
I’ve thought of Berlin’s stories often as the tide of people leaving Syria has been so prevalent in the news. That Hungary put up a wall of their own is stunning. That anyone, anywhere, considers a wall to be a solution for immigration problems or to stop an exodus is a ridiculous thing.
Travel matters because we move among people, real people, which makes it a lot harder to ignore the difficulties of others. I’m glad that the Berlin Wall came down eventually. Now, let’s try to stop more from springing up. And keep traveling, keep learning about all the ways there are to be in this world.