Sunday, January 18, 2009

To Travel Global is to Live Their Local

I’ve been too busy traveling, working, re-learning French and just generally living - okay, we’ll cut the euphemistic BS - procrastinating - to blog. Why write when you can walk the streets of Freiburg, Germany, one of the most sustainable cities in Europe? Yes, in December I was a citizen of the world.

With a daughter studying abroad for a year, we thought: who cares about the economy, our carbon footprint and the ever shrinking retirement fund? Better to grab every opportunity to see the world before my bunions and creaking knees make walking impossible.

So the family spent the entire winter break in Freiburg with side trips to the Alsace region in France and Basel, Switzerland. Just writing that sentence makes me shiver – with excitement though it was butt-ass cold for this SoCal resident. (Note to self: spring for the long underwear next time!)

Our lovely daughter was the tour guide, translator and cultural instructor and even my husband’s ‘kitchen German’ kept us from getting lost and well fed. What an immersion in a culture. While Freiburg looked like a small, walkable, charming contemporary city - which I would immediately move to because the street cars were amazing, with people that looked just like me - every time anyone opened their mouth, German came out! And I had 9 years of French and 2 of German and it still shocks me to hear people speaking something other than English without thinking: will the bell ring before the homework assignment.

Now let me ramble on about the transportation. They have it. And I as I walked out of the train station after our trip south from the Frankfort airport, I fell in love. Where can I find this city in the states and how quickly after the younger daughter graduates can we sell the house and move? The streetcars were amazing. Is there a statute of limitations for the jerks who pulled out the Red Cars in Los Angeles in the 50s? What have we been doing for the last 30 years transportation-wise? Bupkis! That’s Yiddish for nada, rien, nicht anything!

So I got my dream trip of staying in one place, eating at the same cafes, walking the same streets until I got the feel of the place. I can’t say I knew how to get around after 2 weeks. It annoyed my family (Note to Other Mothers of Girls: Everything you do annoys them.) that I never learned those winding, charming European streets. I did remember each little area, just could never link up the neighborhoods. So I had to be led home to our bed & breakfast hotel each time. (Note to Self: get excellent city map and cram a few phrases into crumbling brain before arriving.)

So before I sign off, what was the best part of the trip, you’re asking. The Christmas Market was fun with its chestnuts and spiced wine. The Munster in the center of the city was inspiring, the snow was cold and the light, even on a sunny day, was so much less than California’s standard glare. The fireworks on the Schlossberg (large hill overlooking the city) and throughout the city on New Year’s Eve, that went on for hours as the church bells rang, were loud, amazing and legal. The shop owner my daughter knew from passing his store everyday on her way to school chatted with us about his twin brother and then gave us a free candle as a thank you after we bought several pashminas. The two-hour breakfasts sharing sausage, cheese, croissants and pots of coffee as a family were precious.

The older Alsatian couple with the vineyard where we spent hours hearing about the Americans being “only 3 kilometers away and sharing chewing gum with us” at the end of The War and taking pictures of each other as we wished each other a good year were better than an excerpt from a history book. The three-mile mad dash back from the castle ruins on the hill in Heidelberg to the train station in under an hour was heart stopping. The books I read, Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern and The European Dream by Jeremy Rifkin while surrounded by, well, Germans, was enlightening.
But the best moments were connecting with others. I needed to. You see, I went to Germany as an American after eight years of everyone hating us – and as a Jew – to finally visit the country that has impacted my life/our life – from my dad’s stories about hearing of FDR’s death while riding on a train filled with fellow soldiers through Czechoslovakia to my father-in-law’s escape from Austria to Israel on a boat through the Dardanelles during Kristalnacht.

I touched the buildings – 60% of Freiburg was destroyed during the war. I wondered: if energy never disappears, are there molecules from World War II still floating around me? I looked at elderly gray- haired women and wondered, I admit, were they Nazis? When the train conductor checked our tickets, scenes from old black and white movies ran through my head. Papers? Where are your papers?

So did I come up with an answer on where to place Germany in my thoughts? Certainly I have new images to add to the old. But no, I have no complete answers to the German Question. And when I told my friends we were going to Germany or my mother told the people in the assisted living home that her daughter was going to Germany, well, everyone looked askance. Why, was the question in their eyes.

We went to visit the new generation who’s reaching out, my daughter and the other kids in the university program. I came away asking if we can’t forgive or forget and we’re still making war movies, what happens to the generations since. I don’t have an answer but since returning home I have asked the question of others. So far it’s not encouraging. Except from the next generations.

Yeah, it was about more than the great beer and pastries …

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