The Beauty of Eastern Europe

“New Church,” the view from our hotel window in Berlin.

This year’s travels began in Berlin, specifically what was formerly East Berlin. A few blocks from our hotel is the iconic “Checkpoint Charlie,” the point where East and West Berlin met during the Cold War. The area has colored piping that helps to visualize where the Berlin Wall existed. This part of the city is a combination of the old and new, shoppes beside of old churches for example.

After a short visit that included a “Third Reich” day tour concluding with an unexpected sighting of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, we headed on to Poland. After 30 minutes of a very rough road, we merged into a nice highway and the rather flat farmlands of Northwest Poland. We stayed in Krakow more as a base to travel to Auschwitz rather than to tour the city itself. In fact our hotel was several miles away from downtown. It was quite charming though. We managed to find parking to eat in the Jewish district but were not successful when wanting to see the old section of town or the River Vistula.

Part of a street filled with Jewish restaurants and shoppes

Oskar Schindler’s enamelware and ammunitions factory

Onward to the Czech Republic, specifically Prague. The area was similar to Poland with a few more rolling hills. We stayed in the Old Town and my photos do little to show the beauty of this area, street after street of colorful old buildings.

A glimpse into the Old Town Square, site of the famous astronomical clock that unfortunately was covered for restoration

View of the Vltava (or Moldau) River from the famous Charles Bridge, built in 15th Century

We traveled from Prague two hours northwest to Dresden, Germany, the site of much bombing from the allies during WWII. I was surprised by how the German people recovered the stones and began restoration of the century years old buildings. Much of it came after the end of the Cold War and still continues today. Again, we were fortunate to find a hotel in the Old Town along the Elbe River.

View from the Elbe River

We found the people in all three countries to be friendly and helpful despite language barriers. The food was excellent. I am not a fan of some of the Eastern European gravies but that was a minor problem. ALL had delicious sweets, so dessert was always a treat.

Panoramic view of Innsbruck, Austria, a place to spend the night on our way to Italy

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The Past Meets the Present

Entrance to Auschwitz I.

After many years of trying to understand, I arrived at Auschwitz, the place of horror described in so many of the books I have read. Renown author Elie Wiesel’s words from Night come to mind, “In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”

Due to the nature of the visit my reflections have taken time. Returning to my hotel in Krakow, I fell into bed and didn’t awake for twelve hours, not a common practice for me. My thoughts keep returning to the site that on a beautiful sunny day seemed harmless.

Located in Poland by the town of Oświęcim, the Germans renamed the area that is comprised of two large camps and several sub-camps. Auschwitz I is characterized by the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign that tells everyone who enters “Works sets you free,” though most of the time freedom came only with death. This camp is comprised of brick barracks that were initially home to political prisoners and Poles. Today they hold artifacts that teach of the daily life inside the place of terror.

Within a few yards of the the camp and the gas ovens  is the quarters of the longest serving camp commander Rudolf Höss, whose children played while men and women were tortured and killed.

House is to the far right behind trees, camp is just behind the photographer, and the ovens are to the far left.

Sometimes a photo says it all.

Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau, was created to meet the needs of the Nazi’s final solution. A train track divides the women’s and men’s wooden barracks and ends a short distance from the gas ovens and crematoria. This is where selections were made and for most of the 1.3 million who entered the camp, their final stop. As with many of the things I have seen, the place is smaller than I’d imagined. It boggles the mind to think of the 1.1 million Jews, Poles, Soviets, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who were forced to enter and ultimately murdered introduced with these words, “You are now in Auschwitz Concentration Camp and the only way out of her is through the crematory chimney.” Karl Fritzsch (SS-Hauptsturmführer)

Entrance to Auschwitz II better known as Birkenau.

The final stop.

Five and a half hours northwest in the Czech Republic is Terezin or as the Germans called it Theresienstadt. Terezin was built as a fortress city in that latter part of the 18th Century and today is still surrounded by a grassy moat. The entire town was converted into a ghetto for Jewish families. The moat was used to grow food for the German workers while the Jewish citizens starved.

The camp is unique in that many children lived there. Schools were set up and the children left behind evidence of their existence through writings and drawings. A cultural center attempted to create a life for the citizens with plays and musicals being performed. When the International Red Cross asked to see a concentration camp this is where they were sent. Some of the residents tried to smuggle artwork that depicted the real conditions the prisoners faced but their attempts failed. The drawings weren’t found until after the war and the heroic artists were tortured and killed.

Most of the residents of Terezin were eventually sent to Auschwitz. When the Russian troops advanced some of the Jewish prisoners were returned to Theresienstadt where a Typhus epidemic took many of their lives.

Part of the “moat” that surrounds the town.

Terezin today.

The lesson in all of this is to remember. Remembering ensures that the victims died for something. Remembering helps us to understand that this is what happens when people fall for false words and selfishness. That this began in Germany, a nation known for their philosophical, scientific, and artistic advances is important. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

One of the first steps in repeating this horror is the inclination to dehumanize classes of people. Recently liberals were called out with the statement, “They’re not even people. (1)” Nour Kteily, a psychologist at Northwestern University found that when asked about the evolution of man, “on average, Americans rate other Americans as being highly evolved, with an average score in the 90s. But disturbingly, many also rated Muslims, Mexican immigrants, and Arabs as less evolved.” This kind of thinking leads to support for ideas such as a Muslim ban, with the article concluding “People who dehumanize are more likely to blame Muslims as a whole for the actions of a few perpetrators.” (2) British politician Nigel Farage threatened that if not enough is done to fight terrorism that internment camps for Muslims might be an option. This idea was quickly supported by elements of the conservative media. (3)

The recent elections of populist candidates demonstrate that people today are comfortable listening to what they want to hear. The term fake news is often a synonym for propaganda, which remains an effective means to persuade.

1938: “I overcame chaos in Germany, restored order, enormously raised production in all fields of our national economy…I succeeded in completely resettling in useful production those 7 million unemployed who so touched our hearts…” (4)

2017: “Never has there been a president — with few exceptions, in the case of FDR, he had a major Depression to handle — who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Trump said. “I think we’ve been about as active as you can possibly be at a just about record-setting pace.” (5)

So today, more than ever, it is important to remember the words of Confucius. “Study the past if you would define the future,” or Santayana.

Sign from Auschwitz.

  1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/eric-trump-democrats-not-even-people-comments-sean-hannity-fox-news-interview-video-watch-a7777416.html
  2. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/7/14456154/dehumanization-psychology-explained
  3. http://www.salon.com/2017/06/09/conservative-media-call-for-internment-of-muslims-following-london-attacks_partner/
  4. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/the-fuehrer-myth-how-hitler-won-over-the-german-people-a-531909.html
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/06/12/trump-touts-amazing-progress-basks-in-praise-of-his-cabinet/?utm_term=.b544004c232e
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Lessons Learned from London

A Glimpse of the Big City

A Glimpse of the Big City

London is undoubtedly the busiest and complex city I have ever visited. I am glad I got to spend some time there but a second future visit is in order. These are some things I learned.

  • I am usually so good about investigating new places; I did not do my usual work and it showed. Knowing what you want to see and where these things are located helps in deciding lodgings. I chose somewhat poorly, which leads to…
  • Lodge some place central to what you want to see and public transportation stations.
  • Learn in advance or take some time before you begin site seeing to orient yourself to the public transportation. In London realize that bus stops will be located on the opposite side of the road than you may be used to.
  • If you want to take a tour or two, book those first. Then choose possible items like a City Pass that gives you substantial discounts and options to skip long lines. I did the opposite and lost one day on a three-day pass.
  • Keep ALL ticket stubs. Without going into a long drawn out tale of woe, a return train ticket was lost costing us around $25 extra dollars.
  • Remember if you try to see it all, there will be no reason to return. (I keep saying this mantra in my head.)
  • Finally, if you want to see what England is all about, leave the big city. As with many large metropolises, London is filled with sky scrapers, construction, and lots of people. It was only on a day trip to Bath that I began to see what I had imagined through books and television.

Despite all of my mistakes, we did enjoy the sites, especially our day trip to the west country. Bath was settled by the ancient Romans but all of their remains are buried underground. We would have had to tour the museum to see any. It is predominately decorated in the style of the 18th century, multi-storied, large identical houses, connected together, many in circular fashion. In modern times a great deal of these houses have been divided into apartments. Our tour guide informed that if we looked closely we would see several windows that had been bricked. At one time taxes were based on the number of windows one had. When that rule expired another one took its place and that restricted renovations that were not historically accurate so for the most part once a window was bricked, it must remain that way. The downtown area is filled with shops and since the native language is English, the book store is the place I enjoyed the most. It was tiny and filled with nooks and crannies but just as I was about to leave hands empty, I noticed a set of Kate Atkinson choices, an English author I enjoy and sure enough they had a copy of a book that Amazon does not carry. What a find!

Former Bath Housing

Former Bath Housing

Another short stop on our tour was Lacock, a small village owned by the British Heritage Trust. It looks like it stopped growing the 19th century. People are allowed to live there within certain conditions but because of its unique nature, Lacock is popular with the film and television industry. Harry Potter’s birthplace resides there as well as a street used for a marketing scene in last year’s “Downton Abbey.” The town is small and I do so wish they would mandate that all cars be parked outside of town because they really took away from the quaintness of it all.

Harry's Birth Place

Harry’s Birth Place

As evening came we found ourselves at Stonehenge. A day that had been cloudy and rainy suddenly changed and the stones were bathed with sunlight. Despite the onslaught of tourists, the scene is spiritual. Thousands of years ago, sophisticated beings found a way to haul tons of stones from 150 miles away in Wales to central England and place them in a very intentional pattern. Their purpose holds much debate but the fact that the place exists is what makes it special.

Having a bit of fun at Stonehenge

Having a bit of fun at Stonehenge

Finally, and for most you won’t understand but I really enjoyed watching television in the hotel room at night. Having access to all of the BBC and ITV channels I could enjoy shows that I have to wait on for Netflix or PBS to carry or read about them and not see them at all. I am a big fan of these channels.

London Bridge is not falling down

London Bridge is not falling down

 

 

 

 

 

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Tower, Thames, and Time Piece, Oh, My!

A Yeoman Warder with a Yankee Tourist

A Yeoman Warder with a Yankee Tourist

Our first trip to London, what an eye opener! This is undoubtedly the busiest city I have ever visited and that includes New York and Rome. Cars, buses, and bicycles speed through the narrow streets of this city that easily blends the old with the new.

We began our day with a walk across the London Tower Bridge and then down to the London Tower. This complex with its beginnings in 1070 is notorious for imprisoning and executing such famous figures as Anne Boleyn and was home several times to Sir Walter Raleigh. He seemed to have problems getting along with Queen Elizabeth I but spent his time productively writing the first volume of his “History of the World.” I often find the small stuff to be quite entertaining and one of my favorite parts of the tour was getting up close and personal with real ravens. As a fan of Poe, this was quite exciting. Apparently these noisy birds are an essential part of the place.

Quoth the raven, "Nevermore!"

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore!”

Next up was a cruise down the River Thames. Our guide pointed out many places of interest including one of the oldest taverns in London, as well as modern structure called the Shard, a tall building that looks like a shard of glass.

The London Eye - a place Debbie will never be seen

The London Eye – a place acrophobic Debbie will never be seen

We departed at the Westminster Station where Big Ben stood tall adjacent the large complex of parliament buildings. FYI – Big Ben is actually the bell that rings to tell the time. The clock tower was renamed to honor Queen Elizabeth II for her diamond jubilee.

The Famous Big Ben

The Famous Big Ben

Across the street is Westminster Abbey, renown for many things in modern times,  including Princess Diana’s funeral and her son, Prince William’s wedding. It was indeed an inspiring tour through a beautiful building that is first and foremost a place of worship and then a burial place to people like Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Sir Isaac Newton.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

London is cloudy much of the time with rain a constant threat but it didn’t slow anyone down – you just prepare for it and if necessary take refuge with a cup of tea or a refreshing cider off the tap! Day One a success!

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A Road Trip: Destination Bavaria

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A Room With a View

One of the nice things about where we live in Italy is its closeness to many different areas. Mike has been to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a beautiful town in the Bavaria, several times but never has had time to be a tourist. So we decided a road trip was in order.

The area is surrounded by mountains, the Zugspitz being the highest point in all of Germany. The hotel rooms were built with small balconies that afforded views of the local scenery. While we could see the Zugspitz, the Alpsptiz, was the most notable peak that appeared from our room.

Plentiful German Breakfast

Plentiful German Breakfast

Mike had been carrying some items to place in geocaches. He believed that this would be just the area to leave them. With app in hand, we proceeded to a field between Garmisch and Oberammergau. I stayed with the car as Mike traveled a path to a point to where a small chapel and bridge intersected. He spent some time looking but realized that where he thought the cache was would mean him getting wet. He took several photos and finally decided he wasn’t prepared for this particular one. Later after successfully depositing his items at another spot, he looked at his camera. Clearly shown there was the first cache, with the glare of the sun, Mike had been unable to see it but could now claim credit for “finding” it. 😀

Can you find Mike?

Where’s Waldo? I mean Mike.

The town of Oberammergau is typical of the area. Many of the houses and public buildings have frescoes that depict various religious themes. The one in this photo is a school. Look carefully and I think you can figure out what is going on. The rest of the story was on the side of the building. The town is famously known for a passion play presented every ten years with hundreds of performers as well as real animals. We are hoping to be able to see the next one in 2020.

What tale does the building tell?

What tale does the building tell?

Both days of our visit were rainy so Mike’s desire to go to the top of the Zugspitz had to be put on hold. The rain prevents the panoramic views, so we decided to visit Mittenwald, another quaint town. A difference here were small canals that ran along the side walks.

Mini Venice

Mini Venice

For the two days we drove and walked through the area, we ate our fill of Germany meats, breads, and sweets, Mike got to practice his German, and both of us enjoyed the beauty of Bavaria. We departed for home quite satiated, realizing we were back in Italy when during a lunch stop, a television in the room was showing “The Simpsons” dubbed in Italian. I mean where else is something so anachronistic going to appear?? Such is life in Italia!

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The Fourth Time’s A Charm!

The Front Door

The Front Door

This is the fourth summer we have spent at our modest home in Umbertide. By this time little rituals have sprung forth. At the Wednesday market we chose from the various multi-colored petunias and geraniums deciding on the perfect ones to sit outside in the window boxes located on each floor of the building. This year we were offered pink and white speckled geraniums. They go in the planter outside the kitchen window. The frequent thunderstorms have yielded water but the blossoms have suffered a bit from the winds.

Less fun is paying yearly taxes. First we have to find out where to pay them. Each year seems to hold a different location. 2016 – the post office. This is a short drive away. Once there we have to decide which button will give the correct ticket for service. Luckily a young woman was able to help. We then had to stand for about thirty minutes until our number was called. Surprisingly many numbers were called and no-one showed up. I am not sure whether the machine had problems or people got tired of waiting. We again lucked out as the person helping knew what he was doing and our transaction took little time, not so for several others.

After that we hurriedly left to return some extension cords (wrong plug size) to a department store about 30 minutes away. Traffic road work held us back and I wasn’t sure we would make the 12:30 closing. Many stores in Italy close from 12:30 to 4:00. We made it to Casagrande in time but another thing typical of Italy is that many businesses are closed on Monday morning, Casagrande being one of them. We decided to take a photo so information will always be close.

One man’s disappointment can be another’s opportunity. Turning around to go back, I noticed a sign to a store I had never heard of before. We followed the signs and ended up at a new shopping centre. It was shopper’s haven, many different kinds of stores, most being in the modest price range, including an assortment of eateries. Yum.

Due to the large lunch, we returned to another ritual and that is gelato for dinner. There are two shops in walking distance. One offers a nice patio, friendly owners, and generous portions. The other is a shorter walk and a bit richer offering.

While the rituals keep one grounded, it is the unusual that keeps one attuned. As a joke to keep me from enjoying half a pastry for breakfast one morning, Mike said, “Look at the band coming down the street.” Of course I looked, as Mike stole the treat. I looked because it is not unusual to see a band coming down the street and sure enough the next evening, I heard music and there was the band. What got me laughing though, was they played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” – not an expected selection on an evening in Umbria!

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Impressions of France

I have wanted to visit France since my two years of French instruction in high school. Being Italian though, Italy came first. This summer I finally was able to travel through this beautiful country. Whereas Italy takes you back to the Romans, France seems to have settled on the middle ages. Rolling hills and farmland are dotted with blocked shaped farms facing an inward courtyard and on occasion a castle pops up at the top of a hill.

I feared that we might not be welcomed, as we are obviously not French and there seems to be if some are to be believed an aloofness to the members of host country but nowhere for the week we spent in this country was that the case. I remembered more French that I thought I would and was able to communicate our needs.

We did learn that gestures are not necessarily universal. We split and enjoyed one plate of crepes and Mike gave the server a “thumbs up,” to share how good he thought they were. Several minutes later another plate arrived, so Mike was forced to eat some more. I told him no more friendly gestures for the rest of the trip.

Chocolate Crepes - Yum!

Chocolate Crepes – Yum!

We spent most of our time in the area of Normandy. This part of France is framed by its large and lush hedgerows. On some of the back roads they actually touch a car on both sides. While beautiful they proved to be deadly for the Allies as they made their way inland. The hedgerows are perfect hiding places for weaponry.

Our first visit once we arrived was to Omaha Beach and put us on what our tour guide later referred to as the second part of this area. It is surrounded by cafes and summer homes, making it difficult to imagine the chaos of seventy-one years ago. The next day we found part one. It is there, especially when the tide is out that you can begin to understand what the soldiers faced on that cold June morning. At this time of the year the waves and wind are rough, and it was no different on D-Day. Soldiers came in from hours of preparation that included being huddled down in full pack – wet. They had to come in at low tide to try to avoid barriers placed on the beach by the Germans. That meant much more land to cover before hitting the cliffs above. Though not sure of the exact date the Allies would arrive the Germans were there and prepared. It is difficult to believe that anyone made it through this barrage of obstacles and enemies.

Omaha Beach - the view is from the water.

Omaha Beach – the view is from the water.

Our second stop was the American Cemetery, a short distance away that faces the beach as well. It is here that over nine thousand men and women are buried. Symbolic memorials, simple crosses, and patriotic music made this a very emotional experience.

American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France

American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France

The rest of the trip included sites used in “Band of Brothers.” This helped us to understand how the Allies had to fight for small pieces of land using strategy, skill, and just pure luck. The area of Normandy is still filled with German bunkers and war memorials. It is a living museum.

We saw so little in such a short time that return trips are a must.

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June 2nd

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Today is a holiday in Italy. It is the day that commemorates Italy becoming a republic. Somewhat like our Fourth of July. In Umbertide they celebrate with a dog show. No it is not Westminster.

The dogs and there were many of them are family pets, most of indistinguishable breeds. Italians are just as foolish over their dogs as Americans. You can find many families out and about walking their dogs in the early evening, even during winter.

Lining up for notice

Lining up for notice

The piazza was filled with dogs of every size and shape acting like well, dogs. In fact during their waiting time in the corral, one competitor decided that he needed to show who was boss and got a bit ugly. Others tried to hold their own with him until eventually the show off was moved to a corner. The owners got a work out just keeping the pets entertained. I watched for about an hour and the show was still going on when I left.

I am not sure what it takes to win but everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Awaiting the judges opinions

Awaiting the judges opinions

 

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Welcome to Summer Italian Style

After a challenging and mostly stressful year, we arrived much too tired to our home away from home in Italy.

A room with a view

A room with a view

The house has not changed and we welcomed the serenity it offers. After a couple hours of restorative sleep, our first thought was of food. Laura, a neighbor, has a wonderful restaurant a block away, Locanda Appenino, so off we headed.

While the low 60s drive most Italians indoors, Mike and I asked if the patio was open and were guided outdoors for a view of the Tiber River, flower blossoms, and the smell of jasmine. Anticipating our first meal of pasta, the menu for the night included roasted chicken and potatoes. I have learned it is best to go with the specials AND chicken (pollo) is rarely on the menu. It was simply divine.

Fog on the distant mountains

Fog on the distant mountains

The next morning, we awoke early and walked along the river until it wound back into town ending up at a local bar for breakfast. Not a huge meal in Italy, we were pacified with freshly squeezed orange juice, a breakfast sandwich of prosciutto and omelet, ending with a chocolate filled croissant.

A walk along the Tiber

A walk along the Tiber

We are settling into to our summer routine – reading, writing, and sleeping, with a few errands for good measure. Our next-door neighbors welcomed us back and we stopped and chatted with an English artist we befriended who went native many years ago. He caught us up on all we missed throughout the last year.

Umbertide doesn’t have the children, grandkids, or pets. There is no television or movies. Internet has to be rationed. Despite this it offers a much simpler way of life, one that starts off feeling strange but rejuvenates and helps to live productively thought the rest of the year.

 

 

 

 

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Another Saturday Night in Umbria

Man and shadow are part of the painting.

Man and shadow are part of the painting.

We received an invitation to an art show about 45 minutes north of Umbertide. The exhibition was located in a palazzo (palace) in the center of the historic district. It is only open to the pubic once a year, so in addition to seeing paintings, we were able to glimpse a little bit of an upper class Tuscan home.

The artist, Vincenzo Calli, has a unique style, blending old techniques with new. I especially enjoyed how he created a “3-D” element by adding sculpture to the painting.

Upon leaving the exhibition, we noticed that the narrow street in front of the building had been barricaded for what looked like a race. The runners were two and three-year-old boys and girls. The organizers walked the children about a block away and in corrals separated by gender, they raced their way back to the finished line, seeming to enjoy the cheers from the sideline crowds.

The last place but cutest racer.

The last place but cutest racer.

Our next stop was the number one restaurant (according to TripAdvisor) in the walled city of Citta di Castello, an Umbrian town about 20 minutes north of us. The friendly owner server us over sized plates of pasta so I was only able to enjoy one course.

When we arrived back in Umbertide, the town was lit up for a festival. At the base of the Rocco (a former guard tower now an art gallery), a stage was set up with inflatables and fair like vendors. We stayed for a bit watching what seemed to be a warm up acts for something else. We had been told that Cuban dancers were expected. Unfortunately the hour was late and so we left (not before Mike stopped at the local bar to check out the ongoing World Cup game between Germany and Ghana).

The Rocca

The Rocca

Several minutes after we readied for bed, I heard the unmistakable sound of fireworks. Our bedroom window points toward the Rocca and we were treated to a show.

Fireworks outside our window

All of this is to point out that when the evening began, we were going to an art show. As it turned out there was much more to see and do. This was not a special holiday; it is how these people live.

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