Archive for June 12th, 2009

South to Praha

Friday, June 12th, 2009

While the guys continued enjoying the view of the city from the Reichstag dome, I set off through the Brandenburg Gate and returned to the Bebelplatz square. Earlier that day I had stuck my head into an atrium-like room off the square, attracted to the techno beat and kaleidoscopic light show. I learned the university was hosting a benefit dance party that night. I arrived around eleven and persuaded my way inside for half price. The party was slow in starting so I chatted with the student manning the Macbook and the music until around midnight when the real DJ arrived. I hung off to the side until working up enough courage to join the growing crowd on the dance floor for a good passionate dance. The guys were expecting me back at the car before 12:30 so I could not stay as long as I would have wished. Instead, I tried to navigate the Berlin subway system. I arrived an hour and a half late to cold pasta and toast. At junctions, I had to ascend to the surface and walk a block or so past a few raving drunks to descend to the desired subway’s station, then wait for the next train traveling my intended direction. Interesting characters on the subway at 2 am in Berlin. We departed Berlin and Ziegler drove an hour south as we fell asleep.

Mid-morning we woke and David drove to the Dresden Monarch American football team’s stadium where we celebrated with oatmeal. While Ziegler napped, the other three split up and explored Dresden’s Altstadt, the old city center. The area’s architecture is awe-inspiring, especially since it’s a recent recreation. The buildings all appear weatherworn and of ancient Baroque style, despite much of them are less than 20-years-old. It was hard to remember. In February 1945, Allied planes firebombed the city, laying waste to 75% of the city. Pictures portray Dresden as a wreckage where 40 thousand people died. During the Communists’ rule, the area was only partially rebuilt. Today, however, the skyline is adorned with majestic spires and cupolas. I admired the Semper-Oper, the opera house restored to its pre-war glory; the Frauenkirche, the impressively reconstructed 4-year-old cathedral; and what appeared to be the Dresden Schloß palace. Easily distracted, I crossed the Elbe River, drawn by cheering and music. I watched a few minutes of a beach volleyball tournament sponsored by Smart, the makers of those tiny cars only recently introduced in America. On my return through the Alstadt streets to the car I splurged on a German bratwurst, totally worth a Euro.

Reassembled, we left and headed into the Czech Republic. Shenk, my navigator, and I had some fun trying to find Terezin after signs stopped pointing the way and forced a little guesswork. We arrived too late to justify the several Euro for an hour in the small museum so we walked the town and two memorials. The town especially interested me for its history as a ghetto for Jewish artists; these internationally known fine artists and musicians would have been missed if killed by the Nazis. Portrayed as “Hitler’s gift to the Jews,” Terezin’s inhabitants were forced to act out a false cultural ideal for Nazi films and a Red Cross visit. Before that visit, the S.S. thinned the population by killing thousands in Auschwitz and threatened death on any who revealed Terezin’s true living conditions. The ghetto’s Nazi offices churned out propaganda from the Jewish painters. After hours, though, those same artists would use their propaganda materials to draw and paint the true nature of the camp, some of which were discovered later. They are powerful images, Holocaust art from the inside. I appreciate their deviousness: expose the Nazis with the tools intended to conceal.

We continued to Praha (Prague) that evening, doing some intense wardriving before we found free wi-fi (pronounced wif-fee). While we shared the access and opportunity for communication home, we followed the lead of two teens who passed and ate from a cherry tree across the neighborhood road. We ate our full until an old woman passed and scolded us in Czech. On-line, Ziegler and David looked up some Mennonite Your Way contacts along our route, whom they emailed regarding hosting four smelly young men. We also found n English-speaking church for the next morning, a change from the native services we had enjoyed until then. Satisfied, we headed out of the city for some food and shut-eye. A busy day.


Fake and Real History

Friday, June 12th, 2009

The morning after my return, we began the day with a hearty breakfast of muesli (A granola-like mix introduced to us by Erlis and Gisene) and drove back into Berlin for a day of sight-seeing. Just before entering the city we heard some clunking up top and, looking back, saw to our dismay that the roofbox was disgorging its contents onto the busy highway behind us! Slamming on the brakes, we tore out of the car and ran like mad men back up the road where traffic had slowed and was weaving around and between our scattered luggage. The cars slowed to a crawl as we approached, allowing us to run into the middle of the high way and throw things to the berm.

The indulgent Germans never honked or shouted curses; they just waited for us to clean up our mess and went on their way. A very nice lady even stopped and drove us back to the car so that we could get away before the police showed. After driving through that stretch of highway several times we found everything we had lost except for a can of insect repellent. It is chilling to think of how differently events could have played them selves out. That our luggage flew out in the middle of busy, 80 mph traffic without damaging another vehicle, being smashed by a semi, or causing an accident is almost a miracle. Be comforted that all your prayers are working! And, yes we are now making sure the roof box is closed every time before we start driving.

When we finally got everything back together (Though 4 hours behind schedule) we began our exploration with the Großer Stern, or “Chick on a Stick,” a monument to Prussian victories over France. Its column is decorated with gold plated cannons captured from the French, and the goddess of victory on top was molded from the bronze of melted down French guns and also gilded with gold. We all thought it a splendid memorial. We walked together to the Holocaust Memorial, a field of 2,500 stone coffins. Here we went our different ways. I hurried to see the Pergamonmuseum, especially the Ishtar Gate, before it closed in 2 hours. The others balked at paying €10 for so short a time, and went instead to the Holocaust Museum, the Berlin Wall, and the Jewish Museum.

The Pergamonmuseum was amazing. Most impressive were the Alter of Pergamon and the Market Gatebof Miletus, genuine examples of Greek and Roman architecture that are presented in their original forms as much as possible. To walk on and under ancient architecture, millenia old, was spectacular. The museum also contained many ancient sculptures, mosiacs and other architecture. The most impressive were the artifacts from Syria and Assyria some over 5,000 years old. It was amazing to experience such direct and concrete links with ancient history.

Walking under the Ishtar Gate was an experience akin to seeing Stone Henge for the first time. The age and magnitude were overwhelming. I tried to wrap my mind around the reality that I was seeing the same thing Nebuchadnezzar saw when entering Babylon. I was walking under the same span Xerxes passed beneath when he marched on Greece! It was incredible to be in the presence of such a huge remnant of a different world. Eager to learn more about the jaw dropping relic, I hurried to the small placard in front of it…. It said that the bas reliefs in the gate were based on molds from the original bricks…what was “reconstruction” supposed to mean? All my excitement drained away as I realized the gate was a fake, based on the expert’s best estimate of how the original looked. It wasn’t even one hundred years old. I consoled myself by viewing the rest of the museum’s world famous collection, but was unable to completely shake my disappointment.

After the Pergamnmuseum I made my way to the longest surviving section of the Berlin Wall, complete with some well preserved no-man’s land where desperate East Berliners could be shot on sight. I was struck by how much the world has changed in the past 19 years, how what seems like a different world is in fact recent history. I was inspired to pay more attention to the world around me where interesting history is always in the making, and the story of the human race is always developing. It also made me wonder where the world will be in another 20 years. The potential for change is both frightening and exciting. The Berlin Wall is also a symbol of Marx’s utopian vision gone terribly wrong and of the great harm people can do pursuing the course that seems best to them, by forcing it on others. It is a warning we should all heed.

At 8:30 I met with Matt, Dan, and David to go up inside the Reichstag’s impressive glass dome. It is a beautiful synthesis of classical form with modern technology and materials. At highest point inside the dome we stopped with Berlin spread beneath us, just as twilight gave way to night. In the past century this city had seen multiple radical change in the ideology of its government. Its history is a sort of cross section of the ideas and consequences of different ideologies of power and government. One hundred years ago it was a monarchy; today it is a republic. The journey between those two points is one of history’s most interesting and important. That evening we drove towards Dresden and another part of the story that shaped the world as we know it today. Hopefully we continue to learn about each other and ourselves as the trip continues.

Daniel Shenk

West to Berlin

Friday, June 12th, 2009

It was a quiet trip for a few hours on that Tuesday (2/6) as we left Auschwitz behind us, we were all engrossed in our own thoughts. Soon, our life was back to normal. Polish music radio was blaring from the speakers, we were talking about what we were going to cook for lunch and what our plans were for picking Dan up in Berlin, etc., etc.

We slept that night in the car–it’s easier to sleep in a car with only 3 people we discovered–at a rest stop about 1 hour outside of Berlin. The next morning we were up and going pretty early, heading into Berlin where we parked across the street from the Deutsche Opera Berlin and began the walk down town. We had parked quite a distance from center city to save money–and we did! Parking for €1 an hour can’t be beat!

We stopped at a Kaiser and picked up some tomatoes and some cheap Gouda cheese. We were about to check out when Matt spotted some delicious-looking chocolate pudding cups for 19¢ each! We bought four and, later that day with some spoons we had requested at McDonalds (Thank you McDonalds!) enjoyed them immensely. They seemed to be made with real chocolate and real cream!

We left the store and, after another 20 minutes or so of walking, stopped at a Gravis/Apple store to get some internet to check for email from Dan giving his exact arrival time and also to check prices for a power cable for my Mac.

My power cable had exploded all over Matt the day before* leaving me with a computer that, no matter how cool it looks, how good its operating system, and how high its technical specs, did me no good. We checked power cables at the Gravis store. €89. Not gonna work. So we tried a last-ditch effort to get in touch with my family and Dan and get them to find my backup power cord (which I had unfortunately forgotten to bring with me).

I emailed my family with a plea and then called Dan who said he was about to leave but he would see what he could do. Then, we waited and, since there wasn’t anything else we could do, we went and explored Berlin. We walked through the main park south to see if we could find an Aldi somewhere. No one knew were one was and it took us about an hour and a half to find one. During that time we did find some free oranges and the world-famous Berlin Zoo (home of Knut, the captive-born polar bear!).

We ate lunch outside a convention center near the Zoo while the rain poured down for half an hour. We also saw “The Broken Tooth,” a church almost completely destroyed by the Allies during the bombing of Berlin, leaving only the church spire, broken off at the top.

Then we walked back into the park emerging at a Burger King right near the Column of Victory topped with a statue made with melted cannons of the defeated French after one of the Prussian victories during the Franco-Prussian wars. It had begun to rain and we holed up in one of the underground pedestrian tunnels that leads to the column where Matt and David had a jam session with their echoes.

When the rain let up a bit we left and headed east toward the Brandenburg Gate, walking again through the park. We popped out this time to be greeted by the muzzles of two large Russian tanks. Thankfully they were just part of the Russian Soldiers’ Memorial, remembering the thousands of Russian soldiers killed during their drive to Berlin. Oddly the day before we had followed much the same route the Russians had followed from Poland to Berlin, we just did it much faster and with fewer casualties.

We then walked to the Brandenburg Gate, followed the path of the Wall, and saw the Reichstag. Then we headed south through the park emerging at the Homosexual Memorial across from the Holocaust Memorial and headed south to Potsdam Platz where we saw the magnificent Sony Center. It was mostly closed except for the restaurants serving extremely expensive food, so we went back to our car and cooked some of our extremely inexpensive, and likely almost as delicious, food.

We slept that night at another rest stop about 15 minutes outside of Berlin in the direction of Leipzig.

The next day (3/6) we went back into town, found a parking spot for just as cheap but a bit further away from town this time, stopped at the Gravis store to check our email (nothing from Dan or my family about the power cord. We were hoping that meant it was on its way) and went to the Zoo. It was a bit expensive to get into the zoo (€12 pp) but for me at least it was worth it. They have the most species of animals of any zoon in the world and, while it is more cramped than the Columbus Zoo, being in the middle of the city, very good exhibits. We spent about 6 hours there and, as far as we knew, were the last ones out that evening.

We picked up Dan at 2115 that evening, walked the Wall, checked out the Brandeburg Gate all lit up and went and saw the Reichstag. Then, back to the same rest stop for the night.

Daniel R. Ziegler

* OK, so, the cord got frayed inside the sheath so it heated up and it broke through the plastic and ceased conducting power. Matt wasn’t even slightly burned or electrocuted. Boring. But it did look like it had exploded, and Matt was using it during the time that this all took place. Isn’t it more exciting to say it exploded all over Matt?