28 June 2017

Harder Kulm

I wasn’t planning on writing today - I still am not entirely sure of what to say, given that today was very much like yesterday in all the essential pieces.  I even had the same meals (bread, cheese, fruit - pretty standard cheap European lunch/dinner option.)  As it is, I’m in the middle of watching the end of the last Harry Potter movie and feeling quite sentimental and sad over silly things like the death of fictional characters (Lupin! Tonks! FRED.) and over celebrities I never met (Alan Rickman! John Hurt!) and mostly I feel like writing something.  I have no idea how trip related it will even be and most of this will probably come out like a stream of thought mess, but that’s more or less where my mind is right now, so . . . Either grab the oxygen mask as it descends from the metaphorical ceiling before reading or find the nearest exit?

It will start trip related, at least. Today we took a ride up to the Harderkulm (or Harder Kulm - I’ve seen it both ways).  This point - about 4,000 feet above sea level, offers an amazing view of Interlaken, the turquoise glacier water filled lakes and rivers, the towns below - it’s breathtakingly beautiful (like everything else in the alps, lets be serious.)

Looking down over the valley I thought, as I often do when I travel, about the people to whom Interlaken is not a vacation destination but home.  Where the mountains and lakes we take thousands of pictures of are part of a back garden, a commute to work, a normal every-day expectancy.  I thought about the writers I love who have been inspired by the alps or other scenes of nature.  I thought about William Wordsworth who wrote of daffodils and Emerson who went to the woods to live deliberately, and Moses who climbed mountains to commune with God and Mary Shelly who found mountains filled with monsters.  Frodo who climbed a mountain to destroy a ring, Heidi who climbed a mountain to lead a simpler life.

I thought again about England.  Everything reminds me of England.  And when I say this, I don’t mean England the country so much as England the study abroad.  Before I left for this trip I went back and read my journals from that one.  It was ten years ago.  It was on that trip that I realized how introverted I become in large groups.  How much I love solitude in nature.  That trip taught me the power of throwing yourself into something. 

When I look back on who I was then, I feel a whole range of emotion.  Where I am now and where I thought I would be then are widely different.  In many ways, I have become exactly what I feared I would: a cat obsessed Mormon spinster with as many prospects of love now as I had then: a delightful zero.  I’ve had roughly the same number of dates in the last year as I had that year (again, nearly zero).  I hate dating now about as much as I did then, though for slightly different reasons.  I want to take the somewhat boy obsessed girl who watched all her friends get married that summer and tell her to buckle up, settle in, and get over it. 

I also want to sit that girl down and tell her that in more critical ways, she was going to become and experience exactly what she hoped she would and more.  On that trip I watched friends who were far more adventurous and deep thinking than I and wished I could keep up.  I was one of the youngest in that group - if not the youngest, and I saw so many I wished to be like.  Now I find myself thinking and analyzing not just literature but so many other things in ways that bring my life satisfaction and excitement.  I watched as friends went off on adventures and thought that I would never be so brave - I was too afraid to go on roller coasters at that point, how would I ever manage to do anything that required even the smallest amount of legitimate courage?  But now I see myself and think that I am a brave person.  Not “walk into the woods and let Voldemort kill me” level of brave, perhaps, but I have traveled the world, bought a house, taken several jobs that were too big for me - and I’ve somehow managed to buck up and make things work.  I’ve even forced myself onto enough roller coasters to admit that A) I don’t get motion sickness (the real reason I never rode them) and B) that I don’t die on them, so I may as well just go and have fun.  

I want to give that girl a glimpse (not the whole picture, but a glimpse) of the joy teaching brings.  Of the shows she will perform in.  I want to tell her that she can love, and that she can survive being broken by it.  I want to shove a bottle of Lexapro toward her and tell her to save herself some serious grief and just start medication already.  I want to tell her to get into the mountains a bit more and to take a few more deep breaths of air before focusing so much on checklists of things to do.  

Mostly I just want to tell her that she’s pretty much the luckiest girl in the world, with the greatest family and the cutest cat (that has yet to be born) and the best friends and the greatest opportunities a person could ask for.  


(I also want to tell her she’s damn lucky to live in a world where there is still another Harry Potter book to read for the first time, because that is a pretty awesome world to live in.)

27 June 2017

Interlaken

Yesterday we left Salzburg early in the morning and left for Interlaken.  It was a long day of driving with not much to report that pictures on Facebook wouldn’t have conveyed.  We did go into five different countries yesterday (Austria, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland).  The men finished two individual liter bottles of Coke while I steadily sipped away at my 500 ml bottle and finished toward the end of our seven hours of driving.  I would also like to say definitively that there are no men in the world that can belch louder and with more enthusiastic glee than the men in my family.  It is truly a gift.

Our time in Interlaken is something I’ve been looking forward to most on this trip.  Most of the places we are going I have been before and recently, so seeing some new places here is exciting.  Switzerland hasn’t disappointed at all.  It may smell like sheep/cow/goat poo everywhere you go, but after two months of hiking through the English countryside that smell is a somewhat nostalgic one for me, so what it really puts me in the mood to do is go hike a mountain, which is exactly what we did today. 

The weather during our time here is likely going to be pretty wet the rest of the time here, so today we had to pack in as much as we could.  We got an early start and headed toward Oeschinen Lake.  There are so many mountains that we could see, but Switzerland is freakishly expensive, and I’m traveling with one college student and two cheapskates, so the Oeschinensee was the best option - we could travel up the mountain by gondola and hike back down again (after the requisite ride on the alpine slide, of course.) We had looked at the map and assumed that the “hike” from the lake would be more of a walk, but it turned out we couldn’t park our car nearly as close was we wanted, which meant a much longer hike than planned.  

Truthfully, I didn’t mind at all.  I wished I’d come better prepared (I had a snack and some water, but my shoes weren’t ideal), but I really do love wandering around the mountains (and, as previously mentioned, when you can do so downhill, it’s an added bonus).  The lake was stunning.  We ran into some friendly goats and heard cowbells nearly the entire time and got some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen on a hike.  I’ve added to my bucket list the desire to come back here someday with my hiking boots, better gear, and a week or two to spend just wandering Interlaken on foot.  There are so many trails here and I would love to come explore them.

After our longer than expected (at least four miles) hike down the mountain, we got back in the car, headed for a bakery (because that’s the reward for physical labor), then drove off to Trummelbach Falls.  These are some truly crazy falls - ten in all - that come thundering from the glaciers of three separate peaks in the Interlaken valley.  What’s so great about Trummelbach is that each of the ten falls are viewable thanks to a series of tunnels that, in some cases, are illuminated from inside so you can see better.  The force of the water is incredible and slightly terrifying.  In the truest sense of the word ‘awful’ I was struck with both fear and awe at how mighty they were, especially toward the top.  The falls carry up to 20,000 liters of water into the valley every second, which is difficult for me to fathom.

Today is one of those travel days, similar to our day in Hallstatt, where even my vocabulary can’t quite work around an appropriate description for all that we saw today.  It was beautiful.  It was stunning.  It was unforgettable.  This little taste of hiking in the alps wasn’t good enough for me.  I want more, and I want to do it prepared next time.  And there will be a next time.  When I was younger I was afraid that when I grew up (and especially when I married), I would have to give up all of my favorite things.  I’ve learned since then by watching those who have married and by living my own life that when you love something, you make it happen.  Traveling the world is something I make happen.  I am not content to sit back and settle down in one part of the world - I want to see everything that I can. *



*With special emphasis on places that aren’t crazy hot/humid, because I’m a bit of a weather wimp.  It’s probably my greatest travel flaw.

25 June 2017

Herrenchimsee


Thus far the weather on our trip has been nearly perfect.  It’s been hotter than blazes and more humid than I prefer, but it has been sunny and pretty.  Today begins what looks like the end of our good weather luck - rain is forecast for nearly our entire stay in Switzerland and possibly for London as well.  Ah well.  I once had a friend tell me about a pastry shop I needed to go visit when I was traveling to Boston.  “It will have a long line, but soldier on,” she said. “It’s worth it.”  This has essentially become my travel motto: soldier on.  Bad weather be damned, we are going to see what we want to see!

Today we went out to Herrenchimsee, one of the castles of “Mad” King Ludwig II.  Ludwig is a king that reminds me of Louis XVI of France or Nicholas II of Russia - men with great talents and passions who never should have been rulers of countries.  Ludwig himself was a great patron of the arts and a man with a great fascination for invention and modern technology.  He was also very probably gay in a time when it really just wasn’t allowed (at least not in public).  His death is a mystery, but his legacy is one of extremely lavish spending.  His most famous architectural project, Neuschwanstein is probably his best known project, but his most expensive project was Herrenchimsee, located on an island in the middle of the Chimsee lake in the south eastern corner of Germany.  Like Neuschwanstein, it is unfinished.  What is finished is both fascinating and, frankly, a little disgusting - at least when you consider the amount of taxation it took to make such projects possible.  

Herrenchimsee is Ludwig’s love letter to Louis XIV of France.  Louis XIV, known as “The Sun King”, was the idol of many royals who longed for days of absolute power.  Louis XIV reigned for ages (seventy two years) and built the palace that monarchs all around the world tried to copy - Versailles.  As a result, the most finished sections of Herrenchimsee are museum replicas of the most famous rooms in Versailles, such as the bedchamber of the king and the hall of mirrors.  These rooms were only ever intended as museum pieces.  The state room bed was never slept in, for example.  

The castle also includes some funny modern updates that reminded me a bit of when I visited the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island.  Ludwig was king in the late 1800s when technology was advanced enough to allow luxuries that didn’t exist in Louis’ day - indoor heating, for example. My favorite update was a clever trap door for a table, so that the dinner table could be decorated and loaded with food and then lifted back upstairs using a pulley system.  One of the great flaws of Versailles was that the kitchens were so far away from the dining rooms that it would take more than twenty minutes of walking to get food to the table.  This should have solved the problem in Herrenchimsee, but since the palace was never finished, this ended up being a bit useless since they had to haul food over to the palace from the old palace on the island.  Whelp. 

My other favorite piece was an orb at the end of Ludwig’s bed that looked like the Palantir from The Lord of the Rings.  Three candles could be lit inside of it so that the room was cast in a beautiful blue light.  Perhaps Ludwig was afraid of the dark?


Ludwig only stayed in the castle for ten days before his mysterious death - to this day no one knows exactly how he died, only that he was found dead with his physician.  It could have been suicide, murder, or an accident.  Most studies I’ve read assume it was suicide, and it does seem to add up that way.  Like the dynasty he idolized, I think that Ludwig realized that lavish spending not only thoroughly pisses off the people you rule, but also leaves you feeling empty and lonely.  Furthermore, being a closeted gay king must have been incredibly difficult and lonely.  I’m sure his life was anything but the fairy tale he tried to create in his castles.

24 June 2017

Salzburg

After the profundity of yesterday, today’s post is going to seem a little thin when it comes to thought provoking anything.  Today was just fun.  

We started the day off by climbing a mountain in my absolute favorite way: via ski lift.  Don’t get me wrong - I actually really enjoy hiking.  I spent two months doing almost nothing but hiking ten years ago when I went on my study abroad.  But that trip taught me something important about myself: what I really enjoy isn’t so much hiking as it is long distance walking.  Climbing up and down mountains isn’t my natural preference.  (Though I swear if someone offered me a chance to go hike any of the mountains we hiked in England on my study abroad I would do it in a second.)

Our purpose for going up the mountain was pretty simple: we wanted to get some awesome pictures and ride down the mountain on the alpine slide as fast as we possibly could.  One of those two was fulfilled - the pictures turned out to be stunning (not that it’s hard to take good pictures of the alps.  You’d have to be a truly ignorant photographer to get a bad picture around here.) The ride down was less than exciting, which was frustrating because the track we went on was the longest in Austria.  We got stuck behind an older woman who went down about as fast as a snail could.  I tried to take this chance to be less frustrated with the lady in front of me and more grateful for the chance to take in such a great view, but we all left the track a little frustrated.  

Fortunately, the Saltzkammergut (or Lake District) is full of these slides, so while driving toward our destination, we saw another slide, decided we would go down any we came upon because we could and got another ride down a different mountain.  This one had a much less spectacular view but a far more satisfactory ride, so it all came out even in the end. 

We made it to Hallstatt around lunch time.  Hallstatt is a total dream.  It’s Disneyland level adorable, which means it is totally packed with tourists.  The poor people who live there - I mean, they get the best view of any neighborhood in the entire world, but they do so at the cost of having a million Asians trying to break into your back yard each day.  (Seriously, though - there are signs on most of the gates to private residences that are only in what looks like Chinese.  In the spirit of fairness and in an attempt not to sound like a total racist, lots of these signs were in a combination of English and Chinese, so stupid American tourists may not seem much better to the citizens of Hallstatt.)

Hallstatt is known for its salt mines (its how the city made money/makes money), but also features two beautiful churches, swans in the lake, homes built into the mountains, and enough shopping to satisfy anyone’s need to schlep belongings around.  I managed to make it out alive with only a few gifts for other people and some salt to take home.  The last packet I bought lasted me until recently, so I should be set on salt for the next eight years (I bought two for myself.)

Upon returning to the city, we packed back up and walked into the old town of Salzburg.  The weather here tomorrow isn’t supposed to be great, so if we were going to enjoy the city at all it had to be today.  It ended up being a very enjoyable evening.  We stumbled upon my favorite chocolate shop in the world where I made it out alive and with three more bars for my collection (I’m up to nine).  We also came across an extremely chatty Croatian painter who charmed us like the crazy tourists we are into buying three of his pieces to take home. We made it over to the Mirabel Gardens where we took Sound of Music pictures to our hearts’ content (along with every other tourist in town.)  The evening ended at the Festung (fortress) where we watched the sun set over the city.


You know, I have a lot to look forward to when this trip is over.  I have a kitty to cuddle, rehearsals to dive into, books to read and more fun plans to make for the upcoming school year.  It’s easy to forget where I am and think about how much there is on the horizon that's making my life beautiful.  On top of the Festung, though, I felt truly grateful to be exactly where I was, when I was, with who I was.  Salzburg is one of my favorite cities. To be here again is such a gift.  So many people are lucky to visit Europe even once in their lifetime, and this is my fifth trip in ten years.  I have seen amazing things, met wonderful people, tried fantastic food, and had the chance to take in the beauty that comes in variety on this earth.  I am blessed. I am so, so blessed.  All I could think about as I looked out at the city was the words to the hymn “I Stand All Amazed”.  I feel quite confused at the grace that so fully I am given by God - in awe and utter bewilderment that I have been granted so many chances to do what I love.  Traveling the world is such a luxury.  I know (even when I’m surrounded by masses of camera wielding tourists) that it is a gift that is rare and perhaps even unnecessary, but it is something I am so grateful for.  I hope that I take the lessons and experiences I gain when I travel and use them to make my corner of the world a better place.

23 June 2017

Mauthausen

We left Spitzkunnersdorf early this morning.  Juergen and Gerlinde fed us a delicious breakfast.  We will definitely miss the family feeling at mealtimes - Gerlinde is an excellent cook.  Juergen commented that Jared could probably learn to speak perfect German in about three months (he does have a knack for languages.). He also called me a “spy”, saying that I understand way more than I let on.  I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate - I do think I pick up on conversations decently well in German, but I don’t know that I can attribute that to my understanding of German so much as picking up on the odd word here or there and figuring out context enough to make a decent guess.  Learning new languages has always been a struggle for me.  I think some would find this ironic, given my love of language, but the reality is that I rely so much on English for communication that I don’t think I’d ever learn a new language unless I was completely drowned in it, with no choice to come up for conversational air unless I learned to swim.

Whatever the reality in my understanding of conversations the last few days, I’m glad that I was at least able to pick up on some things or I think I’d have gone mad from silence.  Being silent in a conversation has never really been a forte of mine.

Today was mostly a travel day.  We drove through the Czech Republic and into Austria where we will stay in Salzburg for the next several days.  On our way in we decided to stop at Mauthausen, a concentration camp outside of Linz in Austria.  

I’ve done a bit of reading on Mauthausen tonight and am truthfully quite shocked I’d never heard of it until we did that bizarre and demented google of “good concentration camp to see near Salzburg”.  I think most people who’ve studied the Holocaust have heard of camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau.  Mauthausen has never been on my mental list of “major camps”, but the research I did tonight has left me feeling utterly ill.  I am no novice when it comes to World War II research and Holocaust literature (Jewish culture junkie here), but there were things done at Mauthausen I’d never heard of before. 

The sickening irony of Mauthausen, I suppose, is that it is in the most beautiful location.  It is situated on the top of a hill overlooking a peaceful, rolling valley of farmland.  It was chosen as a work camp shortly after the Anschluss because of this prominent location - it was supposed to be visible and intimidating.  It is.  It still is.  Where Dachau is mostly torn down, Mauthausen is still a fortress with many of the buildings still up just as they were when it was a prison.  Mauthausen became the center of the camps in the area - there were several hundred smaller ones, but Mauthausen was the largest and was designed to be the worst.  Prisoners that were sent to Mauthausen were ones that had committed the worst crimes against the Reich, which meant that these prisoners were likely to be extremely intelligent individuals that the Nazis wanted to completely break.  

Prisoners at Mauthausen were forced to haul extremely heavy granite rocks up what were known as the “Stairs of Death”.  Prisoners would have to run as quickly as they could up the stairs and pray that the prisoner in front of them didn’t fall.  It was common for a sort of domino effect to happen where one would fall and cause those behind him to fall as well.  Those who survived this treatment were often led to the edge of the cliff where they were either shot into the quarry below or told to shove the person next to them into the quarry.  The average weight of the prisoners there was something like 88 pounds.

Stepping into the gas chambers was like having all the wind knocked out of me.  There were marks on the walls of prisoners writing last messages to their families.  Claw marks trying to get out the doors.  

Mauthausen today stands as a truly beautiful monument to those who fought.  Because of its location, Mauthausen housed prisoners from dozens of countries.  The yard where prisoners were once forced to work is now a memorial garden, where each country or group has erected a unique memorial to honor their citizens.  There are some triumphant Hungarian men, standing together with their arms raised in defiance.  A monument to the children who were brought to the camp where the figure of the child is a slide.  There is an enormous menorah covered in rocks to honor the Jewish prisoners.  The garden was peaceful and serene and healing.

It was hot today.  Swelteringly hot.  I was miserable after about ten minutes and dripping with sweat in the humidity.  I’d left my water behind on accident in Juergen and Gerlinde’s car and I could feel the dehydration setting in.  It felt a little petty to complain of such things in such a short time after so many had suffered more deeply than an hour of heat that would be solved with an air conditioner.


The actual death toll at Mauthausen is incalculable - so many of the records were destroyed that estimates range from 110,000 to more than 300,000.  We’ll never know for sure - at least not in this life - but visiting places like this is important to me.  We need to see Dachau and Mauthausen.  We need to visit slave quarters in the southern states.  We need to visit Internment Camps in the west.  We need to see these places so that we can touch them and know that they are real.  We need to look at evil through the glass darkly so that we can avoid looking at it eye to eye and do nothing about it.  Visiting places like Mauthausen remind me to be more compassionate, to fight more intensely for the rights of others, and to stand up more firmly against institutions or individuals that threaten the rights all citizens should have to worship and live according to the dictates of their own conscience.