A historical novel with characters (one in particular) I can't quit, a fast-paced political drama that makes for excellent bingewatching (thanks Netflix!) and a new scent making my nose extra happy ... here's a peek at a few of the things I was loving this month.
What a FUN month for a self-portrait! I always love when I travel, as it makes this self-portrait project of mine feel that much more meaningful! So here I am in Berlin, in front of the awe-inspiring Brandenburg Gate (alongside dozens of other tourists, but isn’t that, too, part of the whole experience? ;) ). I know I’ve written about my Germany trip this month at length already, but how could I NOT make this month’s self-portrait involve it? Preparing for this journey occupied a LOT of my life these past few months (both at work and home). While I’m sorry it’s over now, knowing we accomplished what we set out to do there and are back in the states safe and sound means I can pick back up with normal day-to-day life again. But one thing is for sure: I will never forget this experience or how meaningful it was for me to take part in it. I feel darn lucky to work where I do, to be offered the chance to participate in a job that affords an opportunity like this, and I just want to say I do NOT take that for granted.
Also not taking for granted? How crazy life is. I love that a year ago, I would have NEVER expected to see myself standing in front of this European monument. One of my biggest beliefs in life is to be open to anything and everything. Because if you are, you NEVER know where it’ll take you.
Blogging about my Berlin leg of the trip, I got ahead of myself in our journey abroad because our trip started in the city of Dresden, located on the east side of the country. (It killed me to learn we were about a 90-minute train ride from Prague while in Dresden—GAHHH Europe and it’s every-awesome-city-is-so-close conundrum!) We arrived in Dresden on February 7, where our group was picked up by our sweet host, Elke. That woman was a SAINT! Here is our group with the traveling exhibit about Kurt Vonnegut (that the students designed) and we brought with us (what a pain THAT was to check at the airports). It remained at the Dresden Municipal Library during the week we were in Germany. My primary roles on this trip was to document it all for Ball State and to garner media placements about what we were doing there. My good friend Lori (more on her in a minute!) helped us by writing this INCREDIBLE article for Germany’s Deutsche Welle (their national news syndicate, like our CNN). Her words capture the purpose of our trip perfectly! We arrived in Dresden on the night of the Semperorper Festival, a HUGE gala that takes place annually at the city’s gorgeous opera house, one of the oldest in Europe. The gala had it all: fancy (German!) cars, thousands of people, movie stars, FIREWORKS! It was a heck of a way to be welcomed into this beautiful European city and made for a fun night to nurse our jetlag. The next morning we were on a train for Berlin, where we spent the next two days. We left Berlin on Monday for a train ride to Münster, our next stop in our German tour. We were picked up by our guests from the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, a sister school of Ball State. After the fast-paced urban environment of Berlin, Münster was quaint and beautiful. And oh my gosh, there were BIKES EVERYWHERE. I heard someone say the only place they’d seen more bikes was Amsterdam, but having never been, I thought Münster was home of the most bicycles I’d ever SEEN. We took a tour of its city center at the beloved Blue Hour and I was completely smitten. Especially as night fell to the ringing of the bells of the cathedral in the photo below. It was such a gorgeous sight and a true pinch-me moment. I mentioned my friend Lori above and this is a snapshot Rai took of the two of us together. Lori and I had classes together in college at Ball State and I consider her a dear friend. At one point over dinner, I asked, “If someone had told us in our History 150 class 13 years ago that we’d be sitting together at a cafe in Münster together like this, would you have believed them?” Because truly, life is SO crazy like that! I was SO grateful she made the 2-hour train trip from Cologne to come visit (she studied at the university in Münster while in college) and even MORE grateful for her awesome story she wrote for us! That night the group gave its first presentation at the university and we were all SHOCKED to discover that members of Kurt Vonnegut’s family who still live in Münster (where his great grandfather hailed from) were in attendance. Here is one of Kurt’s cousins, Bernard (which was also his grandfather’s name), reviewing a Vonnegut family tree with the group. SUCH a cool highlight of the evening! And here is our group with our AWESOME hosts, the members of the American Studies department at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität. It was SO hard leaving them because we developed a really close bond with them in just the two days we were there. One of my favorite aspects of this trip was working with our peers at a university in a TOTALLY different part of the world and realizing just how alike we all were in our passion for higher education. Can’t say enough how thankful I am to this crew for putting us up in a hotel, hosting us in their city, and being so welcoming of all we had to share about Vonnegut! After our two days in Münster, it was six hours’ of train rides back over to Dresden again, where Wednesday evening the group gave a public presentation at the Dresden Municipal Library. I was SO excited for the students to see how many turned out to take in the exhibit and listen to them speak about Vonnegut (another of my roles for the project was in helping with the branding and design of the presentations. It was a fun project and I worked with our awesome designer, Jason, in our office on it!) Thursday was our last full day in Dresden and it started early with our visit to the slaughterhouse where Vonnegut survived the Bombing of Dresden during World War II (the event that was the catalyst for his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five). We ALL were looking forward to this visit so much, particularly so because we were taking the tour on the actual anniversary of that bombing on Feb. 13, 69 years ago. We learned that the slaughterhouse today is called the Messe Dresden, and has been renovated for use as Dresden’s “state fairgrounds”, hosting public events and concerts (Depeche Mode had been there just the night before). Another highlight of the trip was experiencing the art installation of Irish-born artist Ruari O’Brien that pays tribute to Vonnegut, the city of Dresden and the scale of its destruction during World War II, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. O’Brien’s artwork was first installed at the slaughterhouse in February 2012, but it was damaged by the flooding of the nearby Elbe River soon after. The wall’s reopening ceremony took place during our visit to the slaughterhouse, an event that also marked the first time O’Brien had seen the work since its restoration. Below he’s explaining to us his inspiration for the installation. Dresden’s Kulturbürgermeister (cultural mayor) Raif Lanau came to the presentation with us and got emotional speaking to us about family members of his who survived the Bombing of Dresden. One of the things we learned on this trip is that the impact of these huge conflicts of World War II are still so deeply felt all over Europe. It was very sobering to see. That afternoon we took a tour of Dresden’s Military History Museum, which COMPLETELY blew us away. Rai Peterson, an English professor, our faculty adviser for the trip (and now dear friend!), wrote this of the museum on her blog: “It isn’t what one imagines. The Dresden Military Museum tackles hard questions about war and culture, philosophy, ethics, etc. And it does it all beautifully, incongruous as that might sound. Some of our favorite exhibits addressed war and toys, fashion, animals, and art.” Right inside the door of the museum? Napoleon’s sleigh. So, you know, THAT’S COOL. The architecture of the museum was pretty awesome. Its new wing is meant to symbolize how the history of the city was sliced during the bombing. We went inside the open-air balcony and had an amazing view of Dresden below. One of my favorite exhibits in the museum was on war and fashion. On the left was a military uniform made for and worn by German American-born actress Marlene Dietriche and on the right is a wedding gown from the World War II-era. It’s made of parachute silk because at the time, that was the only fabric that was in abundance for use! Fascinating …. The exhibit on war and toys had us all mesmerized; it asked great questions about whether kids are predisposed to want to act out in play that simulates violence and how much of that is influenced by the toys and games kids interact with. The historical toys (like this doll from World War I era and these Nazi figurines from World War II) were incredibly well preserved. A doll house that a little girl from London in the 1940s converted to a bomb shelter. SOBERING to say the least. Here was our host and tour guide at the museum, Ansgar Snethlage, an art director there. It was fate that he found our group as he is working on a 2015 exhibit for the museum about writers who wrote about the Bombing of Dresden and is coming to the United States next month to research Vonnegut (he was positively giddy to have Americans there who were experts on the subject!). He’ll be in Indiana for a bit so we hope we get to see him again. He came to dinner with us twice while we were in Dresden and we all bonded with him and were thankful to him for interpreting so much German culture for us. Once again, another great example of the awesome friendships we forged on this trip and how sad we were to leave our new friends behind!I could have spent HOURS in the wing of the museum dedicated to World War I and World War II. Alas, we only had about 20 minutes, so I snapped a few pictures of the artifacts that stood out to me (from top to bottom): A soldier’s uniform and the protection for his horse as worn during World War I (the poison gas used in the trenches of that war was horrid …. they actually had an “olfactory” installation in the museum where you could “smell” what it was like in the trenches … DISGUSTING, let’s leave it at that); during World War II, they eventually ran out of gasoline to transport bombs, so they relied on cyclists by bike to get the job done; an exhibit of Jews’ shoes that were sorted by concentration camp victims (God, so so sad) After our tour, we headed back into the city for the night’s event, which was a commemorative ceremony in which Dresdeners around the city joined hands as a peaceful demonstration in remembrance of the World War II bombings. What we didn’t realize until coming back to Dresden was just how CONTROVERSIAL the event was. For years, neo-nazi groups have demonstrated against the U.S. and Britain in Dresden on the anniversary of the bombing. After Germany was reunified in the early ’90s, anti-nazi groups began fighting back and it led to riots and protests in the city. This year, the nazi groups were denied their permit to rally, but there were still fringe groups across the city that were there, which meant the police presence was INSANE (we checked back into our hotel with about 200 federal police doing the same!) In recent years, the hand-holding event came about as a way for Dresden citizens to demonstrate they just want PEACE (and for their city to be left alone). We were invited to participate and left in awe of the thousands of people who did the same.
(This was the view we had of Dresden as we walked up the bridge where we stood for the night’s event) As we all gathered for the hand-holding (which took place as the church above tolled its bells), I looked out over the Elba River to see that there were citizens along the bank of the river holding hands too (they’re little dots in the photo below, but you can see them!). It was SO impressive to see how far this chain went around the city. Also, VERY surreal to see a woman with her child in front of me, holding a balloon in German that essentially said “STOP THE NAZIS”. While the word “Nazi” is verboten in the US (or seems to be), the party is still alive over there, even if it is a fringe group (with kids who are punks, as one German resident described). Another sobering sight to witness: After the event, we walked back into the heart of the city where we were invited by the cultural mayor to attend a concert by an all-boys’ choir at the Kreuzkirche (the largest church in the German state of Saxony, which is where Dresden is located). The choir is one of the oldest in all of Europe (it’s been in existence for 700 years!) so it was quite the way to end the evening. Below, some of my last snaps from Dresden and this trip: A shot of the poster for the hand-holding event—these were everywhere around the city; a photo of the parking lot where, on our first night (as seen above), fancy cars for the opera ball sat and, on our last night, police vans EVERYWHERE … I thought the difference was so striking; the marker in the middle of the old part of the city to the thousands of citizens who lost their lives in the Dresden bombing; the boys’ choir (which was INCREDIBLE). To say our experiences in Germany were powerful ones is an understatement. I have a feeling I’ll be processing this trip for MONTHS to come. But once again, I am SO thankful to Ball State for giving me the opportunity to be a part of it all. And if you made it through all these German blog posts (just ONE more coming, promise!), I thank you! Sharing this trip was something I wanted to do here both to enlighten my readers but also, so I could go back and relive it soon too!
If you’ve followed me long enough on this blog, you know I LOVE to document in words and pictures the places I’ve visited around the globe. (Traveling ALWAYS reminds me just how vastly HUGE our world is!) In that respect, of course I intend to blog about my Germany trip much the same. I thought I’d break things up into two posts since there is so much to cover. For as big as it is and as much as we crammed into seeing in our 48 hours there, Berlin deserves its own post. So, without further ado, here’s an introduction to this incredibly awesome city:
We got off the train station in Berlin after our train ride from Dresden to find ourselves walking onto the set of a commercial underway. These dancers were CRAZY good and only in retrospect did I laugh at what I’d captured. Do you see how they’re wearing ’90s attire? After spending the time we did in Berlin, I can say in the fashion department, the ’90s ARE BACK! In this (fashion-forward) city, I felt I’d pretty much stepped back into 1992. It was Doc Martens and high-waisted jeans and black, black, black everywhere I looked. (And for some reason, Germany just FELT as if it should still look like it was the ’90s — not sure why I wanted it this way …. end-of-Cold War projections maybe? — but to me, it all felt strangely right). By the way, the woman in this photo below with the wedge cut? A waitress at a museum cafe we dined at … I couldn’t resist stealing a paparazzo shot of her because God help us if this look is coming back too. I don’t know many women who pulled off the ’90s wedge (though she’s certainly doing her best at rocking it!) Our first night in the city, we checked into our hotel and then our faculty mentor on the trip, Rai, had her heart set on us visiting KaDeWe, Europe’s second largest department store (it’s second only to Harrod’s, which, having been there while we were in London, the similarities were striking). We had dinner in the food halls on the top floor and I got my wiener schnitzel on (sooo good…hey, when in Germany, enjoy the local cuisine, right?) We spent most of the evening exploring the store (it is MASSIVE). I was still REALLY sick at this point (I started the trip with strep throat) and was feeling pretty overwhelmed by all the overpriced clothes (and being on a clothes-buying hiatus in 2014, wanted to resist temptation) so I sought refuge in the store’s book zone. Then I remembered, OH WAIT, GAIL, YOU DON’T READ GERMAN. Sigh. What an unusual problem for a bibliophile like me to have … I did however take a few photos of some cute German kids’ books before retreating to a cafe in the food hall where I read the book I HAD brought with me (on my phone, that is … I never go anywhere without SOMETHING to read). While at the cafe, I went ahead and ordered some water (again, TOTALLY parched after a long few days of traveling and being sick). And here let me just insert one of my FEW minor complaints about Europe: They ration water there like nobody’s business. And I get it … we are SPOILED in America with all our free drink refills, but as someone who drinks a few liters of water every day, the times I’ve been to Europe I’ve spent my days feeling like a dehydrated raisin. This bottle of Evian set me back about $4 and while it may be hard to tell here, it was probably the size of a can of Coke. So if you’ve never been to Europe and want to go (or are planning to), consider this Lesson Number One (right after the fact they don’t serve ice in their drinks and the waiters and waitresses there wait for YOU to ask for the bill). The next day we were up bright and early and on our way to a cafe for breakfast, encountered our first Buddy Bear. These guys are everywhere around the city and it was fun to read up about them while we were there. Traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is always hard but man oh man, did I find it ESPECIALLY difficult in Germany. Theirs is a language that feels both impossible to read, speak or write if you’re unfamiliar. I basically learned one word while I was there “Apfel” (apple) and when I’d come to things with apples in them (like this pastry I ordered both mornings in Berlin) I’d just point, knowing it was a sure thing ;) Props to all my friends who can speak German … it is not an easy language! (Coincidentally, I also found myself typing on a few German computer keyboards while we were at our hotels—talk about a mind trip…the Y and Z are flipped and there are umlated vowels everywhere … my emails to family back home were hilariously misspelled!) Even the sewer covers in Berlin are cool ….. A VERY Berlin “thing” is the city’s street pedestrian sign, better known as Ampelmann. We have East Germany to thank for this little man, who was so strikingly cute that I loved walking around the city and spotting him wherever we went. I really miss him now! (but at least Dean has a t-shirt with him on it :) )
Our hotel was on a pretty major thoroughfare in Berlin (the Friedrichstraße — don’t ask me how to pronounce that “B” looking letter! ha), and within a few blocks from us was a large area dedicated to commemorating the Berlin Wall. We spent about 90 minutes here, looking over remnants of the wall, reading through the historical displays and photos that were up on exhibit. I was fascinated by it all. Until I was standing in front of pieces of it, I couldn’t have grasped how ridiculous this giant wall was — what a waste of money, resources, and lives (many lost in trying to defect from the East to West side of the city). Not to mention a complete and total eyesore in such a beautiful city. My heart aches for everyone who lived in Germany for the decades it was up and who was forced to endure the Communist division of their country. A block away was Checkpoint Charlie, which I learned was probably the most famous “crossing point” of the Berlin Wall. I was strangely fascinated (and saddened) by the story of Peter Fechter (one of the first East German victims to try to cross the wall here to the west, where he was killed by guards and left to die). I think what amazed me so much by this history is how recent this all was … it’s been 25 years since Germany was reunified and yet the effects of the Communist separation are still felt and talked about throughout much of the country (at least, from what we experienced). I like taking photos of exhibit pieces and the kitschy stuff being hawked to tourists as part of it all. I loved seeing JFK’s face on so many things. Ich bin ein Berliner indeed …. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was an incredibly powerful sight to behold and also very architecturally deceptive. Standing outside it, the pieces (called stelae) looked the same or close to in height…but only when standing among them do you realize how tall some of them are (see how tiny I am in the middle of it below?). The disjointed feeling this gives you apparently is what the architect wanted to have happen to its visitors: The stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason (from Wikipedia). Ahhhhh …. and here it is! The Brandenburg Gate! (I might have squealed when we made it here!) One of the most famous landmarks in all of Europe, it was so incredibly awesome to see this in person. This is our group by the way (From left: English professor Rai Peterson, students Kyle Royse, Andrew Neylon, and Lacey Lord). LOVED traveling with this awesome crew! The Reichstag Building, which is home to the German Parliament (the Bundestag). (It’s crazy to think THIS is what it looked like after Berlin was bombed in World War II). See the dome on the top? We went up inside it … more on that in a minute! There were so many museums to see in Berlin that we sadly never had the chance to even begin to explore. This city could take a week to be a proper tourist in. At this point in our day, we’d been walking about 8 miles and were starving …. so food was ahead of monuments on the must-have list …. Which brings me to my introducing CURRYWURST …. Only Kyle and I ate meat on this trip (crazy being in the Land of Sausage with a bunch of vegetarians) so we were the brave duo to try this German concoction of fried pork sausage with curry powder ketchup. I’d like to tell you that I hated it but OMG WAS IT SO GOOD. Sadly we only got to experience it once (our hosts always had dinner plans made for us in advance) but everywhere we went in Germany, whenever we’d see a currywurst stand, I’m pretty sure Kyle and I’s eyes glazed over in lust – hahaha Speaking of dinner that evening (Europeans like to eat late by the way…most nights we were tucking in to the last meal of the day between 8 and 10 p.m.), this is my WONDERFUL new friend, Reci (I learned to pronounce it like Reese as in the pieces ;) ) One of the coolest things about keeping this blog is learning that I have followers around the world. When I blogged that I was coming to Germany, Reci reached out to me from Berlin, where she is a medical student, and introduced herself. She gave us some GREAT tips on sightseeing in Berlin and I arranged for her to join us for dinner our last night in Berlin. It was a BLAST getting to know her better and I look forward to staying in touch. She is just a doll! As someone who kept international pen pals as a kid, I love keeping them in the digital era too! It was at Reci’s recommendation that we arranged for tickets to go up into the Dome of the Reichstag and it was SO FLIPPING COOL. It was late when we went up there (around 11 o’clock at night) but the views were just breathtaking of the city. The interior cone is all mirrored and, when Parliament is in session, you can see down inside it. I’ve got a bit of a fear of heights, so I was clinging pretty hard to the hand rail up inside this thing, but am still in awe of how incredible it was to be up there! On the walk back to our hotel, we had to get a few more shots of the Brandenburg Gate at night. SO gorgeous. It’s hard to believe the Berlin Wall jutted up right in front of this thing for as long as it did. In Germany, you see these initials EVERYWHERE. They stand for Deutsche Bahn, the German railway system. (And seriously America, WHY can’t we have a train system like all of Europe has? We’d all be better traveled if it was as easy to get around as it is there!) It’s true, I think we all really DO love Berlin now :) All right … that’s a (long-winded) wrap on Berlin …. next up is Dresden (SO beautiful) and the quaint city of Münster!
I’m BACK! It feels like I’ve lived 10 years in the 10 days I’ve been gone abroad. Amazing how traveling can do that to a person. And while I’m EXTREMELY exhausted right now (we had a heck of a 48-hour odyssey on the final leg of our journey home that involved two back-to-back days at the airport and my arrival at my doorstep in a rental car at 3 a.m. this morning), I would do it all over again in a HEARTBEAT to experience all that I did while I was gone.
Whenever I’m fortunate enough to travel, I typically feel as if I’ve left a piece of myself in the places I’ve visited. Germany is no exception. The cities we toured (Dresden, Berlin, and Münster) were all beyond what I could have imagined them to be and I cannot wait to share more details and snapshots with you from our days in each one but tonight I just wanted to send out an SOS that I’m back now and so happy to be reunited with my boys on the home front!
In the meantime, this shot below still makes me gasp. This is the city of Dresden at the beloved Blue Hour. I cannot get over how gorgeous it is! With all its nods to Baroque style architecture, it was completely beyond my expectations. The Florence of the Elba (River), they call it. Indeed. Still pinching myself that I got to experience this journey! Now off to nurse jetlag with a 9 p.m. bedtime!