04 October 2010 | Berlin, DE
Photo: the girls waiting for the start of our walking tour, Brandenburg Gate in the background
We arrived in Berlin this morning and have miraculously found a parking spot near our B&B stay for the next two days. The campervan is working out well, although I do like a hot shower once a week or so, whether I need it or not...
We hopped on the U- and S-trains for the short trip to Parisen Platz, the entrance to which is the Brandenburg Tor (Gate), Berlin's most famous and recognizable landmark (no, it's not the TV tower....). The gate is the last remaining of the 18 gates originally built as entrances to Berlin, and it opens onto the also famous Unter den Linden boulevard, the tree-lined route that leads to the former Prussian royal family palaces. Built from 1788-1791, the top of the gate is crowned by the Quadriga, the four-horse chariot driven by Victoria, the goddess of Victory, alough the initial driver was the goddess of peace, who held a laurel in her hand. When Napoleon marched through Berlin in 1806, he liked the Qudariga so much he took it back to Paris and stuck it in the Louvre. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814 by the combined British, Austrian and Prussian armies, the Prussians took it back, and changed the laurel to a staff with an Iron Cross, laurel and eagle on top, and renamed the driver Victoria; coincidentally (or not), Victoria looks directly at the French embassy....
We joined a free walking tour of the city at Pariser Platz, and spent the next 3-1/2 hours visiting many of the city's key landmarks. Our tour wound its way through the Brandenburg Gate and past the Reichstag, along the line of the Berlin Wall and then through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Here, there are 2,711 concrete rectangular blocks arranged in rows and columns like a city grid system, at varying heights, and the ground below undulates and sinks as one approaches the center, where the block heights reach up to 4.8 metres. It is meant, so the debate about its symbolism goes, to convey a feeling of uncertainty and confusion in a supposedly ordered system. Below this memorial is an undergound museum that will merit a visit later.
We also visited the site of Hitler's bunker where he spent the last months of the war, married Eva Braun in what must have been an incredibly romantic setting complete with Russian shelling 15 metres overhead, and then committed suicide. The bunker is now just a scruffy parking lot with a few small trees and a nearby sign explaining what was there. The governments (current and past) were determined that the site should never be preserved to become a possible shrine for neo-nazis. From there, our tour followed preserved sections of the Berlin Wall, past Checkpoint Charlie, the former Luftwaffe HQ (which thousands of allied bombing raids somehow managed to avoid hitting), and to Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned over 200,000 books written by "un-German" authors in May 1933. The memorial there is quite interesting; it is a window set into the cobblestones, and it looks down into a white room of empty bookshelves. Nearby, a plaque has a quote from the German poet Heirich Heine..."When books burn, in the end people will burn". He wrote this in 1820.
I could go on about the sights here; the tourist trap, circus feel to Checkpoint Charlie (replete with poseurs dressed in US and East German army uniforms who will pose for a photo with you, for a fee of course, but at least it has more "authenticity" than the Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper and native american indian in full feathered headress standing near, but not too near, the Brandenburg Gate, but I digress....), and the impressive architecture that has had to be rebuilt after the war and years of communist neglect and even destruction, and the heaviness and oppressive history of past regimes, but suffice to say that Berlin is a must-see. It astonishes, it dismays, it delights, it depresses, and its current form is superb to see.
Day trip to Cologne
29 September 2010 | Düsseldorf-Köln-Düsseldorf
Photo: Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral)
We took our hosts' son/Steph's friend Felix and drove to Köln (Cologne) to meet up with another of Steph's summer camp friends, with a side trip to the famous Cologne Cathedral. This is one whopping bit of gothic architecture. Its construction began in 1248 and it was finally completed in 1880, after which it was the world's tallest building until the Washington Momument was completed in 1884. It is almost 150 metres long, 90 wide, and 156 metres high. It was damaged during WWII, but not catastrophically so, and rebuilding the damaged areas was quickly completed. We climbed the 533 steps to the top of the right spire; I thought several others making the effort were going to require first aid at best, a defibrulator at worst, based on the amount of wheezing and puffing one could hear wafting up the spiral staicase. Going down, one can get dizzy if one goes fast enough, but falling down 400+ spiral steps is not recommended.
We hooked up with Jasper, Steph's other CISV friend, for dinner and a dog bite (Marine somehow did not make a good first impression with the household hund, so the dog left an impression on Marine...nothing serious, but Marine has now learned that not all dogs are man's best friend...)
Back to Düsseldorf, and we'll explore more of that city tomorrow!
Looking for a Lost Friend
28 September 2010 | Muiden – Terborg - Düsseldorf
Photo: First night in the van: "...and the bed is where, exactly?"
From Muiden we drove SE to the small town of Terborg near the Dutch-German border. During World War II, Judy's father was a major in the Canadian artillery, serving in France and Holland, and he was in Amsterdam for the Liberation. After the war ended in 1945, he took up staff duties at the Canadian Army HQ, and his letters home describe his scrambling to put together a formal dinner with members of the Dutch Royal Family attending, what was obviously a short-fused tasking from the Canadian General Officer Commanding. His letters also relate that he became friends with a Dutch family in Terborg, visiting them occasionally. In addition to having clothing sent from his family in Halifax, he also corresponded with one of the daughters of the Dutch family, named Madelon, who could speak and write english. A few of Judy's father's letters home were preserved, as were two letters from Madelon; these letters thanked him for articles of clothing sent from Halifax, and also mentioned her engagement in the fall of 1946 to a fellow Dutch Red Cross worker, Robert, who was about to be posted to Batavia (Dutch East Indies) with the Dutch Army.
Judy was hoping to track down Madelon and Robert, or their family members, and briefly to reconnect a friendship from 65 years ago. However, Judy's father's letters home never mentioned the family by name, and neither of the letters from Madelon to Judy's father contain any more specific indentification than her signature "Madelon" and a return address of "Terborg, Passberg, Geldenerland". So, armed with this scanty information, we started our search at the two local churches, where both pastors stated that would ask their congregations and check any marriage records from the mid- to late-forties. An inquiry at the community records office led to no additional information other than two addresses for local Red Cross offices and a seniors' home; a short drive to both Red Cross locations determined both were outdated and therefore dead-ends. The visit to the senior's home also produced no results beyond other helpful suggestions and a welcome cup of coffee. We left Terborg figuring that the most likely source of success would be the churches, for which we have contacts now, and a subsequent search through Dutch Red Cross archives in Den Haag (The Hague) which will have to be taken up at some later date.
From Terborg we crossed the border into Germany and then on to Düsseldorf, to hook up with one of Steph's friends from summer camp. No sooner were introductions complete than we were invited in to spend a night or two in the guest room! Our kind of friends!