Tag Archives: Germany

10316 Days

On Monday I saw a Facebook meme that said the Berlin Wall has now been gone for as many days as it stood: 10,316, to be exact. Fact-checking, I found this article. It’s true: Berlin Wall anniversary: Landmark date in Germany as symbol of division has now been down as long as it was up, by Jon Stone in the Independent.

At the Bus Stop, West Berlin, June 1983
At the Bus Stop, West Berlin, June 1983

In 1983, I lived in West Berlin for 8 months. I graduated from high school at age 16 and took a gap year before going to college. My father, a Chemistry professor, did a sabbatical at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, and our family went with him.

Paradoxically for a city surrounded by a wall, I was afforded a lot of freedom in Berlin. I took public transportation anywhere and everywhere using a student pass. I rode my bike. Every week I would go alone to my violin lesson on both the bus and the subway. My violin teacher, an American expat married to a German, lived in an apartment near the wall. She sometimes crossed into East Berlin to buy sheet music cheaply. My copy of the Brahms violin sonata #1 is an old Edition Peters, bought on one of those trips. When my teacher gave it to me, I handled it gingerly, like it might be radioactive.

The only time I ever crossed into East Berlin myself back then was on a carefully guided tour for American tourists, which we were.  After crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, we drove down Unter den Linden, toured a museum with a bust of Nefertiti, and visited a memorial to fallen soldiers.

We were shown a lot of the wall, too. Across the wall and no-man’s land, you could see this futuristic silver ball, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). Built from 1965-1969 and 365 meters tall (at the time), it was visible from many parts of West Berlin. Particularly as I rode my bike around the city, it was a landmark I kept in my mind’s eye. Like my Eastern copy of Brahms, it seemed extra-foreign and a little sinister.

NoMansLand
Berlin Wall from the West, looking across no-man’s land. Fernsehturm in the distance. May 1983

Living there at that time and playing music there influenced what I’ve wanted to write about as an adult. One of my stories at the Clarion West writers’ workshop, “Sunrise on West Lake,” was fantasy about a musician who escaped from a repressive society.

In 1997 I married my husband, who was born and raised in (then West) Germany. We’ve been back many times to visit his friends and family, but only once to Berlin, in 1998.

We could visit the Brandenburg gate from the other side (and it’s a lot cleaner looking!)

Checkpoint Charlie was also no longer recognizable.

Charlie1998
Checkpoint Charlie, 15 years later, May 1998

Construction was everywhere in Berlin back then in the first heady years after the wall came down, and it’s still going on. Pieces of the wall were dismantled and sent around the world as memorials. We have such a piece right here in Mountain View CA. It’s next to the Public Library, and someone made a virtual geocache out of it. I decided that the anniversary would be a good day to find that cache, which is called “Wir Lieben Dich” for obvious reasons.

To find this virtual cache, you had to answer a question about the area around the cache, and have your picture taken with the pieces of the wall. I ran into a fellow cacher at the library, and she happily took my picture.

WirLiebenDich
A piece of the Berlin Wall outside the Mountain View Public Library

As we rightly celebrate the wall’s demise, we also remember those who died trying to cross it:

Checkpoint Charlie, 1983
Checkpoint Charlie, 1983

And the victims of the Nazis:

Plotzensee Memorial to the victims of Hitler's Dictatorship
Plotzensee Memorial to the victims of Hitler’s Dictatorship (May 1983)

No more walls.

Advertisements

Photo Challenge: Edge, at the Oberhausen Gasometer

I seem to have found a new way to procrastinate working on my novel: participating in photo challenges!

Gasometer Oberhausen
Exterior of Oberhausen Gasometer

But procrastination aside, I had been wanting to share these photos for a while and hadn’t found a good place to do it. (They are not mundane enough for Mundane Monday and there’s not a Thursday Door in sight). They were taken at the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany, near where my husband grew up. We visited the main exhibit during our visit this summer.

Continue reading Photo Challenge: Edge, at the Oberhausen Gasometer

Belated Mundane Monday: Canal Fish

My husband grew up in the Ruhrgebiet, an area around the Ruhr River in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalia. This area in midwestern Germany, not unlike its midwestern counterpart in the USA, is known for its coal mining and heavy industry. Nowadays the mundane contraptions of 20th-century industries can be found amidst nature, slowly encroaching.

Continue reading Belated Mundane Monday: Canal Fish

Germans in Vermont

“Life is too short to NOT go geocaching in the rain!”

This weekend we drove to Poultney, VT, in the rain, to drop off our teenage daughter at German Camp. On the way we found a few geocaches.

The “German Camp” is more accurately called the Middlebury Monterey Language Academy, a 4-week immersion program for high-school-age students, taking place this summer at Green Mountain College.

My husband was born in Germany and is a native German speaker. I lived in Berlin for 8 months as part of a gap year between high school and college, studied the German language at Princeton, and worked in a medical lab one summer in Essen. Nonetheless, our efforts to raise our kids bilingual in New England have not been very successful, at least not yet. There aren’t all that many Germans here. Or at least those that are here are well assimilated and speak excellent English. That was my problem too, even in Germany, especially when I was starting out: their English was so much better than my German that everyone tended to just switch to English to avoid the struggle.

IMG_2779
One green mountain among many

That’s not going to happen here at the MMLA. Students take a “language pledge” to only speak the target language for the entire 4 weeks. Their roommate speaks German, they speak German during meals and while playing soccer and board games. They watch German movies and put on German performance art. Once a week they are allowed to use their phones and speak English to their parents and friends. But we won’t even have to let her do that. And the Academy is pretty isolated. Vermont is beautiful and it’s easy to understand where the name comes from. But there aren’t many opportunities for socializing outside of your group on campus.

“You know,” our daughter said as we pulled into Poultney and followed the signs to Green Mountain College, “We could still turn the car around and go back to Boston.”

IMG_2767
You’re not actually going to LEAVE me here, are you?

The sun came out, briefly, and signs directed us to check-in. Kids played soccer on the lawn. She got an ID, a T-shirt, and a key to the dorm. We went to a parent info session, where they discussed a concern that our daughter had been articulating on the way up. She had said, in consternation, “I can be funny in English. But I can’t be funny in German!” We were told that at first, when the students take the language pledge, the campus gets really quiet. The kids feel like they lose their personalities. But over the course of the month, they build them back up again in the new language. And the campus again comes alive with chatter and laughter.

Green Mountain College
Green Mountain College

This is the first time our daughter has been to a sleep-away camp. It wasn’t really a thing when my husband was growing up in Germany, and it wasn’t part of my childhood experience in Western NY, either. We planned this camp back in the fall, before we ever thought we might be moving. But that’s what we’ll be doing when she gets back. So, it was weird driving home without her.

Next stop: a cache in California!
Next stop: a cache in California!

Our 12-yo son sat alone in the back seat, quietly playing on his iPad or trying to sleep. He didn’t want to get out and try to find any geocaches. I did, though; my husband and I got into kind of a rhythm, where he would stop the car at the guard rail and I would jump out, find the container, and sign the log. It was a series of caches, mostly pill bottles covered with camouflage tape, and one small lock-and-lock containing a cute travel bug. We can’t identify him, but he looks Pixar-ish.

IMG_2782The last caches on our list were a travel bug hotel and a regular cache near “Kissing Bridge.” That is the name of a ski resort in New York state, near where I grew up, but it is also apparently the name of a covered bridge in Vermont. And the TB hotel has a really cute design that I won’t divulge here. A quick kiss on the bridge after the cache find, and we were on our way back to Boston.IMG_2781

For the most part, I won’t miss New England weather when we move to California. Today I could have done without the rain getting my sneakers wet, the humidity, the mud, and the mosquitoes around some of the caches. But the sunset over the Green Mountains really made the clouds look beautiful. I’ll miss this.

IMG_2783    IMG_2784

Gold im Mund

The past two weeks have been a . . . what? I’m tempted to lapse into cliches–“roller coaster,” “whirlwind,” or maybe “sh**storm” (as one friend from church described it).

My 12-year-old son had acute appendicitis, from which he now seems to be recovering nicely, thank goodness. And, while he was in the hospital, my German father-in-law passed away. While this was not unexpected, as he was almost 86 years old and his health had been declining, the timing was difficult. Thanks to my parents’ generosity in watching our kids, including our convalescent son, for a week, I was able to go to Germany with my husband, attend the memorial service, and help clean out old possessions. We’re back now. The 6-hour time difference between Germany and Boston has not yet fully worn off, leading me to wake up before the sun.

KlosterMy husband grew up in a small midwestern town called Mülheim an der Ruhr, in the “Ruhrgebiet” near Düsseldorf. “Midwestern” actually connotes some qualities in Germany that are similar to those it brings to mind in the US: modest, hardworking, family-oriented, industrial, not given to religious or political extremism, and possessing of an accent that is easy to understand. I learned Hochdeutsch (“high German,” a standardized dialect used in education and commerce) at university, and it stands me in good stead in the Ruhrgebiet, unlike, say, in Bavaria.

We decided early on in our life together, after a rather harrowing overnight flight on our honeymoon (which we still refer to as being MÜDE IN MÜLHEIM), that our later trips back to visit his family and friends would go through London, would include an overnight stay there in an airport or other hotel after a day flight, and would continue on to Germany late the next morning. “But you waste a whole day that way!” some folks have protested. Perhaps, but our experience is that the day is wasted anyway after an overnight flight, and includes a wholly unpleasant (and in my case unsuccessful) struggle to stay awake that precludes doing virtually anything else.

After arriving in Mülheim with our rental car, we went to his stepmother’s house to see what was left. She had already taken care of many things, including the Memorial Service arrangements for the following day. But there were boxes–many boxes–up in the attic, in the basement, and in a room that my father-in-law had used as a study after retiring from his job as an English and French teacher in the Gymnasium my husband attended. In truth, the thought of all this “stuff” made me a little anxious: my father-in-law’s difficult life circumstances had taken their psychological toll and had made him want to hold on tight to things. Taken prisoner in Pomerania by the Russian army when he was only 15 and sent to a Siberian labor camp, he had lost everything in World War II. After the war, he had come to Mülheim with “nothing but a blanket and two left shoes,” and found happiness with his teaching career and his wife and son, until his wife–my husband’s mother–passed away in 1989, before we ever met. He had since remarried, to a lovely and loyal woman, my stepmother-in-law, and it was she we came to see now. She herself wasn’t sure what was in all those boxes.

Anniversary ClockAs we talked, she pointed out a clock on the windowsill. We have a similar one at home, it is called an “Anniversary Clock.” This clock was a gift from him early in their marriage. It had stopped some time ago and nothing she could do–new batteries included–would start it up again. But the morning he passed, it had somehow mysteriously started again, and was still going. This clock now reminded us how late it was–already after 6 pm–time passed very quickly there up until the end of our visit, largely but not only because of the time difference.

We started going through some old folders and albums. Some of the folders were easy to dispatch: receipts from the 1970s and 1980s for furniture, appliances, and books; bank and insurance statements. These were no longer necessary to keep–the appliances themselves, and even the furniture, were long gone–but there were a lot of these papers, and they were pretty dusty and musty. We were looking for “treasures:” personal correspondence, photos, bank account and insurance verification that would make our task of closing out accounts easier. There weren’t many of these treasures to be had at the moment, so we took a break and went for a walk to look for some geocaches there in Mülheim around my stepmother-in-law’s house.

IMG_2523This search led us to an old school building down the street, which had some interesting carvings: “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund,” reads one. I had to ask my husband what that meant. According to him, it’s a popular folk saying in support of being an early riser, kind of like “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” is in the US. “The morning hour has gold in its mouth.” I’m reminded of the sunrise itself, the early morning when the golden sun makes its appearance. I can’t speak to the relevance of the turtle or the butterfly, but they’re sweet.

The second geocache we went looking for was on the ground of Kloster Saarn, a Cloister museum in Mülheim. The weather was cool and cloudy, and the grounds were a nice place for a walk. Nonetheless, these grounds were completely deserted on a Monday evening. This helped us avoid detection around the area of the cache, which was magnetic and located on a downspout on one of the buildings. The trees were managed creatively and cut into the shape of crosses:

trees

There was also what looked on first glance like a large, green field. But on closer examination, this field was revealed to be a pond, complete with ducks swimming in it.

IMG_2529

My husband mentioned that, despite having grown up in Mülheim, he had never been here before. His stepmother lives in a different part of town from where he grew up. We planned to visit his childhood home in the coming days too. It was sold a couple of years ago and a new young family is now living in it.

The greenery, the museum, the ducks, the clock, the river, the advice from some 20th century architect-sage. These all helped us feel part of the circle of life as we prepared mentally for the Memorial Service tomorrow.