Well folks, it’s been about five months since my return from Europe. The stress of starting back to work at school about three days after my return to the U.S.; returning with a nasty chest cold which lingered for almost two months; throwing myself full force (quite literally) into roller derby; and other complications of a typical twenty-something putting too much on her plate caused met to delay quite a few things, including finishing my last blog updates from Warsaw and Berlin. So, here goes my best attempt, guided by some photos and a blurry memory, at recounting the last week or so of my European adventure.
After we left the salt caves, we spent a not-quite-so-long bus ride up to our usual shenanigans: most of the bus sleeping or reveling (ha) in remnants of last night’s hangover; I spent most of the time reading, trying to spot street names which include ZD, and kicking ass at boggle (sorry, Chris. Next time, we’ll play in German). We arrived in Warsaw with enough daylight to spend some time wandering around the city (this is where my memory gets convoluted by time and my head cold: I think we had the bus tour the next day, but I’m not sure). Regardless of my blurry memory, the one of highlights of Warsaw included taking an elevator wayyyyyy up to the top of a very impressive building which was “gifted” to the Poles by Stalin, and now sits as a constant, looming reminder of this dark time in history for city residents from miles around to see. Though the origin of the structure is unappreciated by the locals, the view from the top was utterly amazing, and showed me what kind of landscape I would be navigating for the next day or so.
The city itself is probably the most typically urban of all those I visited over summer: many of the buildings were destroyed during WWII, and so very few of the historical sites stand today. Huge skyscrapers and plate glass H&M displays replaced the timeless synagogues and stained glass cathedrals of our previous exploits. This freed Jordan and I from our usual frantic perusals, and so after the bus tour we took a leisurely (read: still frantically paced, all the speed walking made it impossible for me to remember what a normal walking speed looked like) stroll to a bakery around the corner from the hotel where we had been told we would find the worlds greatest doughnuts. These uncommon pastries were filled with rose cream, and were quite amazing, although the blueberry doughnuts from Danny’s in Vista are still the world’s greatest (fact). Jordan and I wandered the rest of the city, finding brightly-painted, looming, narrow buildings so squished together that even a horse and cart would have trouble navigating the alleyways between and they seemed almost haphazardly stacked. We passed the statue of Copernicus contemplating planetary alignment, and inevitably stumbling upon sections of the Warsaw Ghetto.
All around the city, there places where the sidewalk has been inlaid with bricks (or build around, in some cases), signifying the border of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII. Poland was one of the countries hit hardest by the Nazi reign of terror (if that can even be a statement: how does one decide which of the nations suffering under the reign of Hitler bore the greatest sorrows?) that the memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto holds a mere smattering of names, a random sample of surnames of the 300,000 people who perished in one year somewhere between the walls of the ghetto and the gas chambers. I was fortunate to be in Warsaw during the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, where the residents of the city banded together to drive the Nazi Occupation out of the city. The Soviet Army was approaching from Russia, but was delayed, leaving the Poles to fight on their own for sixty three days before the Nazis regrouped and destroyed the resistance, and with it, much of the city. On my last day, hiking through the city with a full backpack on my way to the train station, I passed multiple artistic displays dedicated to memorializing those who risked, and lost, their lives in search of justice and freedom for their own nation and people, and also against one of the most horrifying groups in the history of the world. I wished that I could spend the daylight hours reveling amidst the Poles in the land of my father’s family, but I had booked a train ticket to Berlin so I waved goodbye and settled in for a pleasant ride through the Polish and German countrysides.
Whilst on the train, I had the luck of meeting three really wonderful people: Marielle, Edyta, and Lucas. It always amazes me when I travel how closed off Americans are to strangers. By the time I got on the train, all I really wanted to do was take a nap and update my blog (obviously that didn’t happen), but instead I ended up swapping stories about high school literature and the best food in Berlin with Marielle and playing Uno with Edyta and her awesome little boy Lucas. We spent the whole time goofing off and having a great time, where in the USA most of the time people in public (and especially on public transit) really just want to be left alone. For a social species, humans sure are strange…but it was refreshing for me to not be the weird one starting conversations with strangers.
After wandering the city with my backpack for a while, I stumbled upon an Ibis hotel not far from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and the Topography of Terror Museum, checked in, and spent the evening wandering around the immediate area. It was so pleasant to be outside and not be frying inside my skin, but at the same time the cold I started feeling Poland was definitely starting to take its toll, so I ended up sipping a whiskey and coke and eating half a curry burger (yes, that was as odd as it sounds) at a nearby hotel restaurant and hit the hay early, dozing while watching the Berlin hot air balloon make it’s final sunset flights above the city.
The next morning, I awoke late, ecstatic to once again not have any accountability to a tour group or a bus or ticket anywhere. I took a long shower attempting to clear the snot out of my head, took some Benadryl, and began my daily wanderings. First stop: coffee and a bagel, then, Checkpoint Charlie. I had recently seen a History Channel show about the weird ways people snuck across the Berlin Wall, and finding a museum at least partially dedicated to such was a true delight. People came up with ingenious ways of getting through the crossing from East Berlin to West Berlin, including rigging two suitcases together and hiding a person inside them, putting a person inside of a kayak case on top of a car, and even building an airplane (it took a grand total of 16 minutes for the man piloting the plane to take off, pick up his brother in East Berlin, and come safely back to West Berlin). Although I was excited by the escape stories, I was also horrified by the things which had occurred in East Berlin (including kidnapping children who were never returned to their families), and inspired by the resilience of the people whose families were separated until the wall came down.
The next stop was a few notches more intense: the Topography of Terror compound. The foundations of the Nazi headquarter buildings lie scattered around the grounds of the museum, along with a massive outdoor timeline (I took over an hour here before even realizing there were more exhibits inside the building behind me. It is incredible how systematic and institutionalized hatred, racism, and prejudice can become in so little time. The timeline illustrated how the conditions in Germany post WWI led to rise of the Nazi party and eventually to the Holocaust. Black and white photos showed bands of white children giving a uniform Nazi salute as a recording yelling “Heil Hitler!” played in the background; just down the way, a propaganda poster showing how people with “bad genes” (the old, the sick, and the “othered”) are a drain on society and the young, healthy families which should be thriving. As a result of this type of propaganda and brainwashing, patients from a psychiatric hospital in Berlin were sent of to killing centers. Inside the building, the exhibits continued: photos of a man being publicly humiliated for voting no to the referendum on Germany leaving the UN in 1933; an excerpt from an autobiography of a Jewish man where he explained how he would go outside when the air raids were happening because “the vapor trails were signs of light from a better world in which I also would be allowed to live freely”; photos of German children holding blankies standing amidst a background of utter destruction after air raids.
After scarfing down some peanut butter and an apple, I decided to hop on the metro and journey to Northern Berlin for some less intense experiences. My friend Jaime, who had been working in Berlin for some time, recommended that I visit Mauerpark, a large urban greenspace where on Sunday they hold a large flea market. It was a little bit of a hike from the metro through neighborhoods and graffitied tunnels, but when I arrived it felt like coming home. I could hear music playing, and as I got closer the density of young people on bicycles with beers in hand increased. My first view as I turned the corner was a massive half-colosseum type amphitheater literally packed to bursting with people, and people sitting on the hill behind it or standing along the edges. This is where the loudest music was coming from, so I approached to see what the main attraction was. After picking my way through the crowds and settling in to a spot of the hill overlooking the amphitheater, the song ended and the singer left the stage, only to be replaced by a bachelorette party, which promptly started belting a Grease song in completely off key voices. It was at this point that I realized that this was by far the largest karaoke event I have ever seen. I spectated for a little while, marveling at the courage of the singers who got up in front of probably over a thousand people, and enjoying the occasionally talented vocalist. Afterwards, I ventured down the path a little further into the flea market area. The market was huge and completely jam packed with people of all ages. I picked up a few postcards and a magnet, then spent the rest of the day looking for a non-meaty option for lunch and people watching. I grabbed a taco-like dish of
Brazilian origin made of coconut and honey and a big cup of fresh orange juice in an attempt to beat the heat and battle my cold, then headed back into the city center to take a shower and figure out what my plan was for the evening. Although I was feeling quite a bit under the weather, I ventured out to a part of Berlin I hadn’t visited yet in search of a rooftop bar where I could see the city. I got off the metro at Gendarmenmarkt and enjoyed the sun setting behind some very cool neoclassical buildings. By this time I was regretting the journey I had made and didn’t really feel up for the funky German dance party I had been seeking, so instead I found a bowl of hot Goulash in a tiny cafe tucked into an ally, and then headed back to sleep off the day and think about my adventures for my final day abroad.
The next day I woke up feeling about a hundred times worse than I had the day before, and opted for a long, very hot shower before starting the days adventures. I decided to take it easy and picked a museum I could walk to: The Jewish Museum of Berlin. The majority of the museum is designed as a series of maze-like art installations which lead you down the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity. The Axis of Exile led into the silence garden, where giant blocks of stone muffled sound and obscured vision. Although I knew there were at least a few other people in the garden with me, it felt like I was alone and surrounded by an eerie stillness. The Axis of Continuity led upstairs to an unexpectedly extensive exhibit on Jewish history from the beginning of recorded history to current day. I think people often forget that Jewish history is long and complex because we often only talk about the Holocaust (when we study older histories, our schools tend to focus on Christian conquests). The Holocaust was only a tiny blip in human history, and yet left an unfathomable void in the communities of Europe and the world.
The last stop of the day was the Brandenburg gate, an immense neo-classical structure which once marked the entrance to Berlin. As I exited the metro, I heard cries and chants coming from the street above. Many of the most meaningful moments I’ve experienced (especially abroad) have started in the middle of rallies, so I hurried towards the sounds. As I stepped off the stairs into the blinding sunlight of early afternoon, I saw hundreds of people chanting in German. Many were draped in a red and white flag with a many pointed yellow star in the center, and wore white T-shirts with letters written in black sharpie. Most were in German, but the ones in English often mentioned genocide or expressed sentiments like “fck isis.” After extensive Google searching, I haven’t been able to track down where the flag is from (although it bears similarities to the Kurdish flag) or find mention of the rally in the news, but I think it is safe to infer that the crowds wanted to see Germany taking an active roll in the refugee crisis (remember, this was early August).
The previous day, I had seen a massive crowd of people skating through the street of roller blades, and it made my long-standing hunger for a few minutes on skates almost unbearable. Although I was totally beat and was headed back to my derby girls on an early morning plane the next day, I decided to try to find a place where I could skate. I was in luck. I found SO36, a punky bar and music venue that happens to host roller disko a few times a month, and I happened to be searching on the right day. I took a bus over and found streets filled with young people who were all decked out in denim and leather, thoroughly pierced and tattooed, sporting hair colors that put rainbows to shame. I wished fervently that my stomach felt less icky because all the hole in wall food joints I passed tucked away behind graffiti riddled wooden pallet barriers smelled incredible (I wish I had ventured over that way sooner!). I eventually found SO36, rented the coolest pair of sneaker skates I’ve ever seen ,and promptly hit the floor. After a quick lesson on jam skating from one of the bouncer/bartenders, I grabbed a whiskey and coke and tried out some new moves. A few hours later, I was about to miss the last bus back to my part of town and I needed to be up in a matter of hours to catch my bus, then another bus, then a metro, then another bus to the airport for a 7 AM flight back to the USA. So, I said goodbye to Berlin, caught my bus, packed my bag, and went to sleep.
Everyone hates travel days, so I think I’ll leave most of this to your imagination. Of course, when I arrived at the airport the company I thought my ticket was under didn’t fly out of this airport, none of the times matched up, and none of the help desks were open. After a few frantic texts back and forth to Mom, we figured out the flight was operated by a small airline. In the panic of thinking I may have been at the wrong airport and speedwalking around trying to find someone to help me, I managed to misplace my plastic bag loaded with art from Vienna and Prague and some posters from the Communism Museum for my sister. I didn’t realize until I had landed in London, and they were never recovered (I hope someone is enjoying them). After a very long travel day and a long adventure abroad, I was happy to arrive back in the states and crawl into bed. My cold took about two and half months and two full courses of antibiotics to kick, but aside from that most of what I brought back were weird stories, awesome memories, a few postcards, a ton of photos, a much deeper appreciation for world history, and a profound puzzlement at the actions of the world as of late.
Being exposed to so much history in such a short time, it is amazing to me that humans have survived as a species when we have been engaged since time eternal in a struggle for power. We find newer, more creative, more painful, more detached ways to harm each other and seem to learn so little from the atrocities we commit and witness. For what? Because someone doesn’t share the same God, or the same skin color, or the same anatomy, or the same ideology as someone else? How can we not bat an eye when people spew justifications for the demonization of entire races, religions, and geographic regions? How can we look at the pictures of children dismembered by minefields and bloated, drowned bodies washing up on the shores Europe; how can we see train stations full of people who haven’t eaten in three days and left their homes and families behind in a homeland that is being destroyed by the same terror we fear, the same terror that rocked Paris, and still deny the humanity of those who flee?
Writing this today, after the Paris attacks (both in November and those against Charlie Hebdo), after the Beirut attack, after years of civil war in Syria, after Boko Hiram committed 2,000 sickening murders against Nigerians in January with only a whisper from the media (is it that no one is talking, or no one is listening?), after spending nearly a month visiting museums dedicated to never forgetting the atrocities committed for the sake of an errant ideology geared towards “protecting” the European people from dangers presented by a single race of people, I have to ask: why do we allow history to repeat itself? We can see that millions of people fled Europe in the face of the Nazi regime of terror. How can we not see that Syrian refugees are fleeing a similar circumstance? We can see that (some) people who committed atrocities in the name of Hitler and freedom and a “better” world did so because their families would be murdered if they didn’t and they saw no other way. But, we can’t see how young people, who have tried to flee the violence in their home nations and have been turned back, who have seen their families and communities destroyed, are joining terror groups because at this point they see no other options. We can attribute the rise of Nazi Germany to the harsh sanctions put on Germany after WWI which destroyed the economy and left the starving Germans looking for any way to improve their situation, yet we gloss over the roll Western vendettas in the Middle East have played in destabilizing the region and allowing terrorist groups to fill the gap.
A quotation from the Jewish Museum rings true here: “Some killed with gas, needle, and club, others by the pointing of a finger.” Sometimes, a turned back and averted eyes can be just as deadly.
Updates from Rome, coming soon.