Tag: London

TSOJ: Do Birds Still Sing at Dachau?

IMG_2391It had been a long hot day at Dachau and our tour was coming to an end. Our group had just walked through the crematorium and gas chambers and met our tour guide (James) by this statue. “I like this statue. There is something in the attitude of the guy that is defiant. His head is not bowed,” James said quietly.  “The prisoners were not allowed to put their hands in their pockets and I like that he has his hands in his pockets.” There were other tour groups and people who had traveled to Dachau on their own all around, but it was quiet, the kind of quiet that reveals that this place is not an ordinary place.  As I looked at the statue and took a picture, I heard an unseen bird singing in the trees. This song would normally go unnoticed. Usually the chatter of the world drowns out the inconsequential songs of birds, but at Dachau the song bird has its most attentive audience. For three hours I had not heard a single happy sound.  My mind drifted away from everything that I had seen that day and I began thinking of John Keats‘ poem Ode to a Nightingale, especially the first stanza where Keats discusses his personal anguish and the mysterious bird’s happy song.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

  But being too happy in thine happiness,—

  That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

  In some melodious plot

  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

  Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

I had traveled to Keats’ house near Hampstead Heath in London many years ago and sat beneath the tree where it was said he was napping when he heard the nightingale singing. I walked through the stagnant house where Keats lived and wondered if he knew his life was almost over when he wrote those words. Historians believe Keats had contracted tuberculosis from his brother Tom who had died in December of the previous year. Did he see that his life’s arc was going to be so brief?

I thought of Keats’ headstone in Rome inscribed with the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and how he died believing that his poetry would disappear and he would join the numberless members of the human race who have melted into this earth and are now unremembered. Keats’ poetry survived, and his life has been immortalized through those words,  but the millions of humans that were murdered during the Holocaust are now reduced to faded photographs and representative statues. The names of the six million European Jews who were murdered by the Nazis did have their “names writ in water.”

Dachau has a way of reminding that life is brief, that circumstances and fate are cruel, and that humans are both brave and savage.

I was not sure if I wanted to spend my final day in Europe at Dachau. I had been to a concentration camp near Hamburg (Neuengamme) several years before and understood that these memorials are not destinations to be visited as a check-off on my to-do list, but I had also come away from the visit at Nuengamme wishing I had someone there to explain what I was seeing.  Authorized guided tours of concentration camps are limited by the German government not because they want to cover up the crimes committed during the Holocaust, but because they only want qualified, educated people leading tours of these factories of death. There are a few English-speaking tours of Dachau each day and after reading a number of reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go with the “In Their Shoes” tour. It was a good choice.

The tour group (seven of us) met in the main train station in Munich just outside of a coffee shop. We had a quick meet and greet before hopping on the train to Dachau: There were two younger military guys from Michigan on leave from duty in Africa, and a family of three adult children and their mother from Portland. The train trip from Munich to Dachau is about 15 minutes and our group spent the time talking about where we had been during the summer. Our guide, James, began talking about the history of Dachau after we had transferred from the train to a bus. After a month in Europe, and seeing the bits and pieces of the puzzle that led to Hitler’s rise to power, I was reminded that these events did not just take place as words in a history book. The bus dropped us off near the entrance to the memorial and James did what any good guide does, he gave us a brief introduction to etiquette for the memorial and then guided us to the gates of the camp.

The camp gates, "Work will set you free."

The camp gates, “Work will set you free.”

My initial reaction to the gate was that it was much smaller than I thought it would be, in fact the entire camp was much smaller than I thought it would be. I suppose I thought the camp should be equal in size to the horror it caused, but this was not a cemetery where graves would mark the great numbers of people who were tortured and murdered here, it was a work camp where the Nazis mechanically tried to destroy several groups of humans. Dachau was the first concentration camp, a camp I had read about in books, heard about in history classes, and the camp that would become the model for the rest of the factories of death. It was not as large as Nuengamme (a camp I had not heard of until visiting) and I began to wonder why it was more “famous” than other camps that murdered just as many people but remain unknown to most Americans. If I were to say, “I went to Nuengamme,” to most people they would assume it was another city in Germany, but if I were to say, “I went to Dachau,” no one would think I went to the small town just outside of Munich. Why?

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American soldiers were the first to arrive at Dachau.

I believe there are two reasons why Dachau is fixed in our collective American memory: American soldiers arrived at the camp first, and one of the soldiers had a color movie camera that recorded what the Nazis left behind. The movie camera captured the train-loads of bodies, the medical facilities created to test the extremes of human survival, and the surviving humans who looked more like walking dead than living people. These shocking images have survived the 70 years between the end of WWII and today. These are the images of events we swear to never allow to happen again…but we all know genocides continue to plague the world.

James and a map of the concentration camps.

James and a map of the concentration camps.

I’m not sure how long the tour lasted. We saw the entire camp, the ovens, the gas chambers, the barbed wire fences and moat, the barracks, and the on-site prison. I took pictures, but even today, I don’t want to share them. It isn’t that I don’t want others to see what I saw, it is that I don’t think pictures can bring the reality of the place to life. Pictures dull the impact of the horror because it becomes too familiar, too ordinary.

The millions of people murdered deserve to be remembered, but their hopes, their dreams, and their lives were “writ in water.” There are too many of them to be remembered properly. It is too overwhelming and all the memorials in the world will not make up for what has been lost.

As I left Dachau I thought of the song bird sitting in the trees behind the statue. Keats argued that the bird is not truly happy, it does not know death, it does not know pain, and therefore the bird does not understand happiness even though humans associate its song with joy.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
Birds sing because that is what birds do. I don’t know what humans were designed to do because what we do makes no sense.

TSOJ: A Vienna Bike Tour with The Terminator

Before most bike tours start there is a tiny tutorial about how to use the bikes, the bike rules in the city, and how to avoid getting killed on the bike tour, but not with Walter (pronounced Valter for those of you who speak English properly.) Walter simply asked if we all had bikes, looked to see that we all had bikes, and then he began riding away from us assuming that we would follow. His assumption was half correct. About half of us followed, and the other half of the group had some difficulties turning around, hopping on their bikes, and beginning riding. It wasn’t long before a city block separated the two groups and I was a little concerned for the trailing pack, my job as “Ass Man” made me keenly aware of the difficulties of being in a trailing group. Sometimes traffic lights delay progress, sometimes it is a slow rider, and sometimes it is just fate, but usually the group leader is a little concerned about splitting the group and will slow down and wait, but not Walter/Valter, I never saw him turn around to check on the progress of the pack he just kept rolling forward like he had to be home for cable installation between 5:00 and 5:05.

Walter rode for another block or two and then stopped. He turned around, saw that half of the group was still missing, shook his head, wondered aloud why the people in the back were so far behind, and began talking about the opera house without waiting for the slow pokes. There were two distinctive attributes about Walter that I instantly loved: 1. He made fun of everything not Austrian. 2. He sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he talked. “I am going to use a bad word now for you Americans, Socialism. That is vhy ve have the best drinking vater, the most livable city in the vorld, and if I have to go to the hospital I don’t pay anything.”  Walter did not just give America a bad time, Germany, France, England, and Russia would all get tossed under the bike tour’s wheels at some point along the way, but Walter did it with good humor and the type of boasting usually reserved for American Olympic teams.

Athena agrees that Vienna is a great looking city.

Athena agrees that Vienna is a great looking city.

When we rode by a large statue of Goethe I asked why we hadn’t stopped (mostly this question was poised so that I could show off that I knew how to pronounce Goethe’s name.) Walter did not skip a pedal push, “He’s German, nobody cares about him.”

The tour followed the ring circling Vienna’s old downtown area and before too long I realized that Vienna has the most beautiful buildings in the world. Each city has its own beauty (I am excluding Bakersfield from this observation) and spending time anywhere a visitor can find things to like about a city, but most cities are limited in what they can offer a visitor who is there for a short period of time.

My requirements for a perfect city to visit: 1. Great, easy to understand public transportation, 2. A city plan/map that is easy to understand, 3. Great museums, 4. Beautiful buildings, 5. Green spaces, 6. Temperate climate, 7. History, 8. Walkability, 9. Food, 10. Je ne sais quoi.  On a 0-5 scale most great cities will score in the high 30s and low 40s using my scientific scale. Take Paris for example: Transportation: 5, City Plan: 5, Great Museums: 5, Beautiful Buildings: 5, Green Spaces: 5, Temperate Climate: 4, History: 5, Walkability: 5, Food: 5, Je ne sais quoi: 5, for a grand total of 49. That is a pretty good score. London might end up with a 42 (city plan is terrible, and London is not really a walkable city unless you want black lung.) Bakersfield: 5 (great Mexican food, everything else is a zero.)

Anyway, as we rode around Vienna, I began to believe that Vienna might be a 50, and I am sure Walter would have agreed. Since Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg Dynasty it still has the structure of a world leader, but the importance of Austria as a global power has diminished and I have the feeling that this has allowed Vienna to relax and focus their monetary assets internally as opposed to trying to run an empire.

That is one big, two-headed Eagle.

That is one big, two-headed Eagle.

Green spaces in Vienna are abundant. Want to rent a rosebush in the royal garden? You can.

Green spaces in Vienna are abundant. Want to rent a rosebush in the royal garden? You can.

There is a large amusement park near the Danube river. I saw this thing in a James Bond movie once.

There is a large amusement park near the Danube river. I saw this thing in a James Bond movie once.

The food tent outside the Rathaus.

The food tent outside the Rathaus.

The center of European power for 800 years.

The center of European power for 800 years.

Some royal house or something.

Some royal house or something.

By far the best Plague column I saw during TSOJ.

By far the best Plague column I saw during TSOJ.

You don't see things like this in Bakersfield.

You don’t see things like this in Bakersfield.

The golden dome was designed by Klimt.

The golden dome was designed by Klimt.

Just another Vienna building.

Just another Vienna building.

Walter telling half the bike riders about the fountain.

Walter telling half the bike riders about the fountain.

Public housing Vienna style.

Public housing Vienna style.

All in all the bike tour took about two hours and Walter was able to make it to meet the cable man in time. I think he also mentioned a meeting he had with a couple beers, but in my opinion Walter earned those beers. He did not lose anyone on the tour, he entertained me, he did not tell any lies (as far as I can tell), and he did have a lot to say if you kept up with him.

 

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Berlin

I found beer flavored beer was best.

I found beer flavored beer was best.

10. Flavored beer has its limits. While in Berlin I sampled lime flavored/colored beer, raspberry flavored/colored beer, lemon beer, and grape/colored (is grape a color?) beer. The research was exhausting, but that is why I am here, I boldly drink what many women and children have drunk before. The lime beer was passable, the lemon beer was good, everything else was a bad idea. I refused to try the banana beer. I did hear that the banana beer was good, but after the grape disaster I decided to stick to regular beer.

"I'm Scottish and trying to speak English!"

“I’m Scottish and trying to speak English!”

9. Drunks are annoying no matter where you go. “Oh, I see, you can drink all the flavored beer you want, but if some Scotsmen get a little too much beer in them…” Okay, first off, I did not drink all that awful beer at once. I spaced the bad beer into different days to keep my precious palate clean. I was having a nice evening in Berlin when this crew began having “too much fun.” How do you know you are having too much fun? You are loud. You are speaking English, but the people who understand English are constantly asking you to repeat what you said because they are not sure if you are still speaking English.

185(365) knees

185(365) knees (Photo credit: JasonTank)

8. Cut-off shorts must be stopped. I remember seeing these pants/shorts things and laughing, now they are everywhere and Berlin is not helping to stop the spread of this fashion disease. I really, really don’t like this. What is next? Bell-bottoms, super bell-bottoms, and open necked shirts with medallions?

7. Gypsies have shifted their begging strategy in Berlin. I could be wrong about this, but I did not see the traditional women asking for money. I was caught off-guard once. I was walking down the Unter den Linden and a young man approached me with a little piece of cardboard and a signature page. He indicated that he could not hear by pointing at his ears and making moaning sounds. I looked at the signature page and thought I was signing a document for legislation for deaf people…until I got to the last box to fill in: Donation. I put a big 0 with a line through it and got a little steamed. It was obviously a scam and felt like tossing his little sign into the street, but just handed it back to him and told him he was getting nothing from me. After this incident, I saw many more of these “deaf” guys all about the same age wandering the tourist areas asking for “donations.” I assume people who are deaf are actually taken care of in Berlin and know SIGN LANGUAGE!

6. Beggars in Berlin, and in many cities I visited, have multiplied. What struck me about the beggars (I am not speaking of homeless people) in Berlin were the physical deformities. I saw one shirtless man with scars covering his back and shoulders from some type of acid or fire burn and I saw other people whose legs had been so badly damaged that they could barely walk. I know that in some countries beggars are physically maimed in order to improve their ability to get more money and after seeing these people I wondered if this “tradition” has moved to Berlin. It is difficult to believe that in a country that provides so much of a social safety net that there are people still falling through the cracks. The cynical part of me thinks that it is a scam, but I also cannot help but carry the guilt of winning the “birth lottery.”

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Jewish Holocaust Memorial.

5. There is no better city in the world for history and moving monuments. I have not been to Cairo, Athens, or Istanbul, but I think Berlin holds more history than any other spot. Of course, this history can not be glamorized and the German people have done a better job than any other place I have been to hold a mirror up to the horrors and learn from them.

Empty underground library located where the Nazis burned books.

Empty underground library located where the Nazis burned books, and little of my finger.

4. Bullet holes in stuff makes it more interesting. I remember being fascinated by a church in London that still had scars from bombs dropped in WWII. I looked and looked at the small dents and chunks missing from the marble of the church and understood that history wasn’t something that just happened in a boring class or books. Berlin has more bullet holes in it than a Quentin Tarantino movie. Even the Victory Tower, which has been fully restored, still has all the bullet holes and dents left in it.

Victory Tower recently restored.

Victory Tower recently restored.

The restoration missed a few spots.

The restoration missed a few spots.

Chunk of marble missing from WWII.

Chunk of marble missing from WWII.

3. The German language mystifies me. I really cannot seem to make my mouth and eyes work at the same time. I see the word, think about what it might sound like, and then completely mispronounce the word. This is shameful, but it is a fact. I cannot order a single food in German besides beer, and the only reason I can pronounce beer is because it sounds the same in English.

2. Eat street food in Berlin. The currywurst is good, the doner is great, and the ethnic food in Berlin is really outstanding. Most of us want to go to Germany and eat “German” food but if you want to eat that stuff do it in Munich where they celebrate that whole beer and brats thing. In Berlin eat ethnic food. It is less expensive and really good.

Currywurst mit pommes.

Currywurst mit pommes.

Rhubarb flavored soda? I'll bet that is good...nope.

Rhubarb flavored soda? I’ll bet that is good…nope.

Doner.

Doner.

1. I can visit Berlin many more times and not get tired of it. (Okay, full disclosure, I do think they need to do something about the smell.)IMG_1818

 

TSOJ: Berlin–Ugly Shoes, Horrible Hotels, and How Germany Won the War of Breakfast

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Jesus in Berlin. I’m not sure if he is doing a swan dive, or is using the Crane technic (Karate Kid allusion) to fight off evil in Germany.

Let’s be honest, most Americans have a singular view of German history: Hitler. I don’t want to minimize Hitler’s impact on Germany, but reducing German history to the years around 1930-1945 is a little like reducing American history to the Reagan years.

Berlin has seen it all and for any traveler interested in history, Berlin is a must stop.

Travel inside Berlin has some challenges for a non-German speaker, but people are generally helpful and most speak excellent English. For me the public transportation is a challenge. Whereas London, and Paris have systems that I find easy to use, Berlin is a complicated mess. Now, I am certain that the locals all know how everything works, but to me the S system and U system need a bit of work. I was told that the S system is above ground and the U system in underground, but that isn’t always the truth. Coming off a U train and having to find an S train is a sometimes difficult. Couple that with Germany’s directional signage problems and you have a lot of lost tourists. (I found that almost all the signs got you 70% of the way, the last 30% is supposed to be intuition.) The number of times I started one direction, came back, and then finally figured it out are too many to mention. I don’t believe that Germans care that you get lost, and frankly who can blame them a lost tourist is a comical person to watch: The map flapping in the wind, the confused look, the orientation of map to streets, and the joy of knowing where you are going is a great example of Schadenfreude. I’m not saying that Germans are purposely being mean, they just seem to get a little more joy from your discomfort than other people.

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Berlin is also the best place that I know of to see chunks of ancient history, WWI and WWII history, Cold War history, and European reunification. London has a lot of this same history, but it is seen from a longer lens, in Berlin it happened in the streets beneath your feet. The greatest example is the brick line that cuts through the street in front of Brandenburg Gate.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

These shoes were made for running and that's not what they'll do, instead they'll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

These shoes were made for running and that’s not what they’ll do, instead they’ll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

Today cars drive across this little brick path, but just twenty-five years ago there was a wall separating East and West Berlin and a large chunk of ground between the two cities called the dead zone. This is now completely gone and the two cities are now one large metroplex of a city. Most cities grow around a center (I like to think of it like the yolk of a fried egg), but since Berlin had two centers for so many years it is like one of those two yolked eggs. There is the Western center of museums and culture, and then there is the Eastern chunk. When it comes to Berlin’s museums I will admit that I like the stuff the East had stolen better than the stuff the West had.

I think one of the most important aspects of Germany’s history is that they do not hide from their mistakes. It is not difficult to spend your whole day visiting Hitler sites and reviewing the horror of the Holocaust and WWII. Much of this history could have been revised, but Germans have done the more difficult thing, and that is to brush off the dust of history and show people how a country can take the small steps that eventually lead to inhumane acts of genocide.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, "When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people."

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, “When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people.”

How did I end up buying the ugliest shoes in Berlin? Well, my blister problems have been well documented during The Summer of Jon, but I finally decided that I would do whatever was needed to find shoes that did not cause me blisters, so as soon as I arrived in Berlin I struck out to find a shoe store. The good news is that my hotel was near one of the major shopping areas in Western Berlin, Ku Dam. So, I hobbled up along Ku Dam until I reached a shoe store and looked for a cheap pair of running shoes. I found some that met my requirements: not too loud, on sale, and in my size. I bought the shoes, asked where I could put them on, and then found out that the shoes I bought were too small. I took the shoes back to the register and talked to the salesman. He said they normally don’t carry shoes bigger than 45, which is close to an American 12. I normally wear a 12.5 so I asked if there were any shoes in my size, the salesman said that they don’t get many shoes that size but he would look. He came back with one pair of bright yellow shoes. “These are the only ones we have in your size,” he said. These shoes only met one of my three requirement–they fit. Everything else was wrong. Florescent yellow is not a shoe color in my opinion, and the shoes were not on sale. My desperation forced me into buying some epically ugly shoes and these shoes have not gone unnoticed. Germans are probably better at making disapproving faces at strangers than any other culture. I got a lot of looks. I know that I am probably just a trend setter, and that everyone is jealous of my cool shoes.

Berlin's man-hole covers are world-class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

Berlin’s man hole covers are world class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

When booking hotel I take into consideration many things, location, ratings on TripAdvisor, cost, and whether breakfast is offered. Sometimes I make a mistake. The biggest mistake would be the first time my family visited Iceland. There were not many hotels to choose from and prices were high for a family of four. We ended up in a place called the Flying Viking (pronounced Flying Wiking.) It was a little like a garage, a little like a hostel, and a lot like a place that my family universally hated. I was less concerned about the ratings of a hotel on this trip as saving money was the primary priority and because of that I didn’t mind staying in riskier hotels that were centrally located. Berlin has lots of hotels that do not cost a ton and I found one called Hotel Pension Kima just off Ku Dam and surrounded by expensive shops. It sounded like a no brainer to me. I booked it. My hopes were pretty high until I stepped into the elevator. The elevator resembled a painted wooden box that moved up and down the shaft by means of a hamster powered engine. It was the type of elevator that when you step into it, it sinks three inches. This did not make me feel safe, the sign next to the elevator did not reassure me. What does this sign mean? Be careful when passing the flame? Hell is located close by? Stand with your arms straight when the box catches fire?

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box...

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box…

After I got my key and headed up to my room, I was confronted by the uncomfortable fact that I was staying in a dive. The bed looked clean and that was really the only important thing, but I wondered how many people had died in this very room. Berlin is an old city and I estimated there were probably at least five people who took their last breath here. There was also the possibility that no one had died here because it was actually a broom closet until it was converted into my room. I dealt with the situation like most travelers, I spent as little time in the room as possible. I slept there and then spent the day out and about. This might be the best reason to stay in a dive, it forces you to get out of the hotel.

Don't get turned around in here, you could get lost.

Don’t get turned around in here, you could get lost.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

The other part of the hotel was the morning breakfast. I looked forward to it since German baked goods are very good. Apparently my hotel did not get the memo about feeding me German baked goods. We had coffee, orange juice, a couple cereal choices, cheese, meat, hardboiled eggs, and very bad breads. I tried to eat my usual 5,000 calories on the first day, but it was forced, and on day two and three I was eating a small breakfast and then paying for a large lunch. The good news was that I was able to eat cheaply since Berlin is a reasonably priced town, and beer is certainly not frowned upon for lunch.

Getting ready to take out my "breakfast anger" on some brats and beer.

Getting ready to take out my “breakfast anger” on some brats and beer.

I’m not panhandling! I’m holding a three ring binder!

I have reached a new historic high in grumpiness. The other day I found myself yelling at someone across one of the wide sidewalks in downtown Seattle. It didn’t happen just once in my little stroll, it happened three times. The first time was when a young lady dressed in a blue ACLU shirt and holding a three-ringed binder yelled to me, “Would you like to help gay rights?”

I yelled back, “No!” Now if I were walking down the street in the bible belt I might have gotten a bunch of slaps on the back, but in downtown Seattle that kind of attitude is not widely accepted. My son thought it was pretty funny because I sounded like a homophobic jerk, which for the record I am not.

Two blocks later it was a young man wearing a Save the Children shirt holding a three-ringed binder, “How would you like a tax break?”

Well, I would like a tax break, but I yelled at this poor young man anyway, “I would like a tax break, but I’m not going to give out my personal information to some stranger on the street holding a three-ringed binder.”  I’m sure he didn’t hear my whole rant because I didn’t slow down to give him the pleasure of my company.

Two blocks later I ran into a dancing three ringed binder guy, I don’t know what charity he was supposedly working for because he was dancing like he was at a Grateful Dead concert and all the spinning around made it hard to read his shirt, but this guy wanted a fist bump. I did not give him the pleasure of a fist bump, but I did give him a very angry look.

I don’t like these people. It isn’t that I don’t like them personally, it is that I don’t like what they are doing. I am certain that charities are looking for new ways to get money, but this is just stupid on multiple levels. The first time I ran into someone doing this guerrilla fund-raising was in London about ten years ago. She was wearing a green tunic with Oxfam printed boldly on it and I was still young and naïve enough to be interested in what she was doing on the street so I stopped and had a 30 minute discussion about her charity. They were trying to help homeless kids get off the streets and back in school. I like Oxfam, I think it is a great charity, but in the end I told her that I would not be giving her my credit card information. She was disappointed, but are there really people stupid enough to give a complete stranger their personal information just because they have a three ringed binder and a t-shirt? I can get a t-shirt made for about $10 and I could also print off lots of colored pages from websites to make me seem to be working for those organizations. I could even get a plastic badge made to look even more official.

Seattle, like many cities these days, has laws against aggressive panhandling. Homeless people are not allowed to loiter and  aggressively ask for money, but if you wear a t-shirt and dance around like you are on acid, you can be as aggressive as you want. Charities like the ACLU should know better. Are they really expecting people to give credit card information to complete strangers? I can’t imagine that this form of “fund-raising” is successful, and I can only imagine how personally damaging it is to the poor saps that have to deal with jerks like me. I felt bad for two whole blocks after I told the ACLU girl that I didn’t want to help gay rights, because I really do want to help with gay rights, I just don’t want to help Russian gangsters steal my credit card number and go an a vodka spending spree.

When the Planning’s Done

The epic travel adventure story never includes a section titled: Over Planning. Why? Because all epic travel stories are about what went wrong, nobody cares about a perfectly executed travel story (unless it is a travel story where Navy Seals are involved.) What most people like to read about are trips where a multitude of things go wrong. Shackleton’s trips to cold places, the Donner Party, Cheryl Strayed’s novel Wild and almost every story written about mountain climbing are examples of how we like to read about other people’s misfortunate mistakes. Some of this fascination probably revolves around the fact that we like to avoid painful situations, but we also enjoy reading about other people’s pain, especially if they are bragging about their great trip to Europe and things went a bit wrong.

I am not immune to these mistakes, almost ever trip I have ever been on has had something go wrong. As I have aged (some people get older, I age like cheese or wine) my expectations for a perfect trip have disappeared and I have begun to embrace the things that will inevitably go wrong.

Now that I am almost done with the planning stage for the Summer of Jon, I have begun wondering what will go wrong this summer. The internet has made planning for a big trip much, much easier. You can read reviews of hotels, you can look at pictures, and you can even use Google Earth to see if the hotel actually exists. In the olden days, the days before electricity and such, I would do extensive planning by looking at a map and deciding where to go. Then I would go. Sometimes it worked out just dandy and other times I ended up sleeping on a pool table, or drinking water from a large cistern with a dead animal in it.  Internet planning is not idiot-proof though, I still am able to make dumb mistakes, just ask anyone in my family they can regale you for hours about all the mistakes I have made.

As I wait for July 1st, my temptation is to over plan. I have the basics down (flights, hotels, and a few attractions) but I have to fight with myself to avoid planning each day like I am invading the continent of Europe and not just merely visiting it. Should I find out what traveling exhibits will be at the museums I want to go to? Should I decide today what type of food I will want to eat for lunch on the fifth day of my trip (answer: something cheap)? Should I learn a few phrases of German to help me when I inevitably end up in a bakery getting yelled at? Or should I just arrive and let fate take over? Right now I am comfortable with fate.

Looking back on all my travel, the days that are most vivid are the ones where everything went wrong. There was the British Airways strike that grounded my family in London for two extra days, there was the wind storm that cancelled my train ride to Bacharach and took my family on an epic sojourn that only Ulysses could truly understand, there was the day we went to a water-park in Paris only to be turned away because I refused to wear a Speedo, and there was the day I took a bike ride to Versailles in a Biblical, Noah and the Ark rainstorm. I hated those days, but as I look back on those days I am reminded why those days are so valuable. Those bad days make the great ones that much better.

 

 

My Favorite Places: The British Museum

Someone in London deserves a medal. I am not speaking of the upcoming Olympics or of some Londoner’s brave behavior during WW II, I am talking about a cultural decision to make many of the museums in London free. The first time I traveled to London I did not know this and I purchased a “London Pass” which got me into a few of the attractions that had an entrance fee (Tower of London, Queen’s Gallery), but when I tried to use my pass at most of the museums (National Gallery, Tate Modern, Natural History, Victoria and Albert) I discovered that these cultural landmarks were there for everyone to enjoy without having to spend a quid, a pound, or a guinea.

These museums are not free because they suck, the are free because someone decided that you shouldn’t have to pay to see some of the greatest stuff in the world. My favorite museum in London is The British Museum.

There is something about the light in the Great Court.

There are people who are probably saying as they read this, “Well, the reason the museum is free is because all the stuff inside is stolen from somewhere else.” Sure, Elgin is not going to get a warm reception in Greece any time soon, but I don’t think he cares since he has been dead for many years, but most of England doesn’t care either. It is that British attitude that is both admirable and maddening. For all their cultural awareness and preservation of the arts, there is an underlying, unspoken message for people who don’t like it, “We don’t care what you think.”

The greatness of the museum collection is unquestioned. The Elgin Marbles are impressive, the Rosetta Stone sits behind a big glass case and is always surrounded by people, the Egyptian rooms are impressive, but what I like best about the museum is that two great poems were inspired by visits here.

Rumor has it that John Keats wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn after visiting the museum, and Lord Byron penned Ozymandias after seeing a broken statue in one of the halls.

I am Ozymandias.

There are probably other reasons to like the museum, but each time I have visited I find myself circulating in the same general area: enter the Great Court, take a left and wander for a couple hours.

The Rosetta Stone before the computer program.

Balawat Gates.

Now the British Museum is not everyone’s favorite place, in fact some people don’t like anything about the museum other than the food.

So, if you are a lover of chocolate frogs or reminders of the greatness of man’s ancient cultures the British Museum is a must see, and it is one of my favorite places.

Young Kids, Museums and Travel

When our kids were young we took them to London and Paris. There were people who asked, “Aren’t the kids too young to appreciate Europe?” Well, they may have been, but my goals were not to have them “appreciate” anything, I just wanted them to see the world from a different angle. I wanted them to have a mind altering experience early enough in life so they did not see the world as their enemy, which, in my opinion, is how many Americans view the world.

Now the trip did not always go smoothly, Emma might have been too young to care about the Elgin Marbles, but the trip did allow them to see the world is not a homogenized chunk of Home Depot, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Safeway strip malls crowding each American city. They came back to the USA with an understanding that things are different other places and that isn’t a bad thing. They tried new things and found out that “different” isn’t a threat to an American way of life that must be snuffed out. I believe that if more Americans traveled overseas, not just in military uniforms, the world would be a better place. Only 37% of Americans have passports. That statistic is probably skewed by economics (some people cannot afford to travel) but I believe there is a large group of Americans who never want to leave the country for any reason.

The trip also established two unintended consequences the first being that both of my children have the travel bug. I could not be happier. We went back to Europe with the kids in 2009. We visited Iceland, England, France, Germany and Denmark. Did the kids have a great time 100% of the time? No, but both of them are pleading for us to go back and see new places. You will not hear my kids say, “I hear the French don’t like us” or “What’s there to see in Iceland?” because they know that every place has its own magic. Now, maybe we could have established this idea here in the US, but if you travel much in the US you begin to see that corporations are doing a good job of making the American landscape all the same. Sure, Europe has some of the same problems, but the cultural differences between places is something that even the largest corporations cannot change.

The second unintended consequence of our travel is something more important and that is the shared memories of adventure. Some people have advised me to save money for the kids’ college years, but instead I have spent our money on travel. I have invested in memories instead of the future. Now this might be foolish but I don’t see the point in squirreling away nuts for the winter when those nuts have a pretty good chance of becoming rotten. Memories are investments also. They are the type of investment that always increases in value and my kids have memories they will be able to share with their families some day.

So, should you take your kids on a trip someplace far away before they are old enough to appreciate it? Yes, and then take them again, and again.

 

A Good Lie to Tell Your Kids

Traveling with young kids can be a challenge. They are grumpy little people with short attention spans and not much interest in history or art. So when my wife and I decided to take our kids to Europe for the first time there were many challenges we had to overcome: How do you keep your kids entertained without spending the whole day at places like Chuck E Cheese? How do you avoid eating at places like McDonalds? How do you introduce your children to a world that will be vastly different than the one they are accustomed to? And how do you get from location to location without carrying them everywhere?

I wasn’t sure how I would overcome all of these challenges but I did decide right up front that I was not going to lug a stroller around London and Paris and I was not going to spend my vacation time like a pack mule carrying my kids from location to location, so I did what parents have been doing for centuries, I lied to my kids. It was a simple lie, a beautiful lie, and a lie I would suggest for any American family traveling overseas.

“Did you know it is against the law to carry children in Europe?”

There it is. One day, probably after carrying my kids around Seattle, this little gem popped out of my mouth. At first I really didn’t know how valuable this gem was but if you are a parent you know that carrying a 40 pound kid around for 20 minutes can be tiring, so carrying two kids around Europe for two weeks is not anything any parent wants to do unless they are some kind of super-parent who wants to brag about how great they are. I am not that parent.

Now some of you out there might be skeptical about how well this would work, but let me assure you that once we arrived in London we saw very few children being carried. Most people who live there take their kids in strollers and on the couple occasions we did see children being carried my children actually believed that the parents were breaking the law.

My kids walked everywhere. They were little troopers. They walked to the Tube station, they walked through museums, they walked long distances (okay, we did have to buy a lot of ice cream), but I did not carry my children. Did I have any guilt over this lie? Nope, not a bit. Were there any problems? Well, my daughter did get angry once or twice, but that story is for tomorrow.

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