My pants are getting tight around the waistline
13.06.2013 - 18.06.2013
I am half-way through my Highlights of Germany tour with the Trafalgar travel company, and the misadventures are rolling in faster than a division of blitzkrieg panzers (lightning-speed tanks).
Drive Down Memory Autobahn
I lived in Germany from 1983 to 1987 from the ages of 5 to 9. My dad was serving in the Air Force and we lived in a German village near Ramstein. I went to kindergarten and first grade in a German school. Tiny memories flashed in my head during the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. I found the design of street signs and their character fonts exactly like I remembered. I recognized the logos of a few German companies, and the atmosphere felt familiar on my skin. Later on I was in a bakery, and the distinct smell of German pastries brought a rush of memories.
Frankfurt am Main
My tour started in the city of Frankfurt on the river Main. This city is a major finance center of Europe, and they jokingly refer to it as “Mainhattan.”
St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral is the city’s historical highlight. From 1562 to 1792 it served as the coronation site for Holy Roman Emperors. For those of you not up on your Holy Roman Empire history, all you really need to know is what comedian Mike Myers said about it in an old Saturday Night Life skit: “It was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” (My guidebook attributes this statement to Voltaire.)
Schnitzel is one of my favorite German foods. I looked at the menu out of habit for my first meal in Germany, but I had veal schnitzel on my mind since my plane took off from Atlanta.
Rhine River Cruise
The next leg of the tour was a cruise on the Rhine River. The towns along the river looked like pages out of a fairy tale book, and a small castle greeted us at just about every river bend. The tour guide pointed out one treacherous part of the river where sailors of old believed a Siren lured ships to their doom.
An old customs station in the middle of the river.
For lunch I had a delicious plate of wild boar sausage.
The Cologne cathedral is the highlight of this city, and this one is much larger than many other cathedrals I have visited throughout Europe. I am inserting this aerial picture from the internet because I was unable to get a good picture of it up close due to its size.
Here is a frame of reference. Notice the size of the spire in the forefront compared to the people walking by. This spire is the same size as the ones on the top of the cathedral, which look deceivingly small from the ground.
Here is a picture of the inside. The organ’s position in the middle of the cathedral is somewhat unique.
Cologne Caviar – My tour guide encouraged me to try this dish. The English menu threw me for a loop because it described the dish as “black pudding.” It turns out the word “pudding” is synonymous with “meat” in England. I enjoyed trying a new dish but wouldn’t eat it regularly.
This town is the scene of the Pied Piper legend. The town puts on a re-enactment every summer Sunday, and it is a big draw for Germans in the area. Historians think the nugget of truth within the legend reflects population emigrations occurring at the time.
This city in north Germany has one of the world’s largest seaports. I took a tour of the harbor to check out their equipment and operations. I used to be a military logistics officer so I have a strange fascination with this type of stuff.
The people of Hamburg love to sit by a few lakes and waterways in the center of the city.
My tour of Hamburg included a small monument dedicated to the Beattles. The band came together and spent their formative period in Hamburg. Paul McCartney said “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” Another point of interest about Paul is that he was evicted from his apartment in Hamburg for starting a fire.
Coincidentally I was in Berlin at the same time as President Obama. My tour left the morning of his address so I didn’t get to see it.
Preparations for the President’s address at the Brandenburg Gate. The U.S. Embassy is located on the left.
With the help of some friends I tried to get to the top of the wall. Nowadays it doesn’t look like much of an obstacle. My guide said she has to explain to young people who wonder why people say it was so hard to cross that “the wall” was actually two walls with lots of barb wire, land mines, and a river between them. What remains today is only the outer wall.
I went through Checkpoint Charlie before the wall came down. My dad secured the permissions necessary to take the family on vacation to East Germany. I remember being really scared going through the checkpoint. Bright lights shined in our car, and guards spoke harshly through the loudspeakers. I remember looking up at a guard tower and seeing what I thought was a bazooka aimed at our car. I remember a few moments of tense uncertainty, where seconds passed like minutes, as we sat in the middle of the checkpoint while Soviet guards circled our car with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Today only a little white booth with a few token sandbags remains. The only thing I found scary about the place was the large McDonalds next to it.
The only other notable memory I have from East Berlin at that time was from our dinner experience at a restaurant. My sister had a Disney picture book and our waiter noticed it, mentioning his little daughter. We left him the book as a tip, and he reacted like we had given him the Mona Lisa. His family wrote us an elaborate letter after that. I didn’t understand the capitalism vs. socialism/communism debate at the time, but I do remember thinking what a horrible country this must be if a kid couldn’t get a Disney book.
Speaking of bourgeois excess, KaDeWe is the premier department store in Berlin and it offers just about every type of luxury good you can imagine. A very attractive saleswoman told me I looked great in a pair of Porsche Design sunglasses which went for a mere 300 Euros. She had me reaching for my wallet for a moment, but price aside, I didn’t think they fit my face well.
This is the balcony where Michael Jackson held his baby over the rail. This hotel has a long history of celebrity and distinguished guests.
During the Cold War days spy trades were exchanged at the Glienicker bridge on the border of West Berlin and East Germany. The Soviets turned downed U2 pilot Gary Powers at this bridge.
Pope’s Revenge – The East German government built this communication tower in the 1960’s to make a statement about their technical prowess. A design glitch became evident after the tower was completed. The sun’s reflection in the main part of tower just happened to make a cross. This was a huge embarrassment to a government which sponsored atheism as the official state religion. Berliners started calling the cross the Pope’s Revenge.
I enjoyed seeing the German Reichstag (parliament) building. The glass dome symbolizes transparency in government. The public can walk to the top of the dome and look down into parliament sessions, and their visible presence above is intended to remind parliament members about the people they serve.
Gates of Babylon – When I was Iraq I flew over the ruins of Bablyon in a helicopter. The site features a replica of the famous Ishtar gate entrance, as the original is the in Permagon museum in Berlin. I sought this structure out during my free time. As I passed through the Ishtar gate I thought about how Alexander the Great had once walked underneath the same arch. The gate was also too big for my camera so I am inserting an internet picture of it.
Here is my picture of one of the lions.
My tour included a dinner at a lakeside resort in an area which once served as a hunting ground for Prussian kings. I had the venison dish, and other guests had a traditional ham hock.
The signature dish of Berlin is Currywurst. Curry powder on top of ketchup makes for an interesting taste. Adding mayonnaise to fries is common throughout Europe.
Public Nudity – Our tour bus drove by one of many public parks designated as nude sunbathing areas. This is a common and accepted practice in Berlin and other parts of Germany. Even mainstream business professionals will strip off their suits during lunch breaks and catch a few rays au naturale. I was in a museum which depicted life in East Germany before the wall came down. It had a panel about how nudism and skinny dipping had its roots as a form of passive resistance to the authoritarian government. A survey at the time revealed 4 out of 5 East Germans had participated in some type of nude sunbathing, and 9 out of 10 did not have a moral problem with the practice. Advocates of the movement outfoxed government officials by saying the nudism lifestyle supported socialist ideals because all social class distinction is removed along with the clothing and everyone stands in front of each other as equals.
Whereas the German public is comfortable with seeing the human body on television, they will censor out scenes with intense violence. They are appalled at the violence which Americans allow on television in the same way many Americans would be appalled at the nudity allowed on German television. When Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had the nipple incident at the Super Bowl some of my German friends expressed disbelief about the American public getting so upset over a nipple while not saying anything about TV violence.
Another neat offering of the life in East Germany museum is the “Trabi” car they have on display. East Germans had to wait 16 years to get one of these two-stroke engine masterpieces. A screen setup gives you a feel for driving the car through an East Berlin neighborhood.
Ämpelmannchen (Traffic Men) - When the Berlin wall came down the world was turned upside down for the East Germans. Everything changed for them to conform to western standards. East Germans clung to their pedestrian traffic lights called Ämpelmannchen, and contested attempts by the West to change them over to Western-style lights. East Germans take a lot of pride in these icons, and stores offer all sorts of merchandise with these images on them. Wikipedia will go as far as to say these figures have “cult status.”
I am recommending a book titled In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. It focuses on the experience of the United States Ambassador to Germany in the years 1933-1934. This is the time period in which Hitler and the Nazi power had their breakthroughs and were able to consolidate power in Germany. The book gives the reader a sense about how many at this time thought Hitler could be controlled, was just posturing for political purposes, or would flame out quickly. The US Ambassador at the time was one of the few people who saw what was happening and where it would lead. He faced strong headwinds because there was a strong isolationist movement at the time in depression-ravaged America, and U.S. banks didn't want to give Hitler an excuse for defaulting on loans to the German government. In the meantime his daughter gets involved romantically with the first Gestapo chief as well as a Soviet agent. The author also does a good job of describing how anti-Semitic forces played out in both the government and populations of the United States and Germany. It is a work of historical non-fiction, but it is an easy read because it is written in a story format. Erik Larson is mostly known for writing Devil in the White City which is about America's first serial killer at the Chicago World Fair.