02 July 2017

London Days Two-Three

I’ve never attempted to “do” London in such a short time before - I’m glad that this isn’t my first (and certainty won’t be my last) trip to this amazing city.  It makes it so much easier to be content with all that we’re missing out on and all I wish I could see.  I haven’t been back to the Tate Britain since the first time I visited ten years ago.  I’ve never toured Kensington Palace and we didn’t make the Churchill War Rooms this time (there’s no time to wait in a line to get in if you have so little time to see anything).  Even so, I don’t feel panicked or bothered.  There’s always another trip.  My first time to Europe I thought I would never go back, or at least not for a long time.  I’ve since learned that when you are single and gainfully employed and love to travel, then there’s always another trip.  

That in mind, I decided long ago that this leg of the trip wasn’t about me - it was about trying to find a way to give my dad and my brother the best trip to this city as I could.  I think we’ve been successful. 

Yesterday we started off on Portobello Road.  Truthfully, I wasn’t sure this was a good idea.  It’s a great place to get good and inexpensive gifts and certainly an experience that’s part of being a London tourist, but I am traveling with two men.  I was surprised at how much they seemed to like it, given that dad doesn’t like shopping.  We didn’t stay long, which suited all of us since the crowds are always so thick that tolerance wears thin, but it was a successful trip and both dad and Jared said it was one of their favorite parts of London, so it wasn’t a terrible idea after all.  Phew. 

After Portobello we went on a walk through Kensington Gardens, my favorite of all the London parks.  Because it is so vast with so much green space, it always feels less crowded than the other parks to me.  Plus, there’s that Peter Pan connection I can’t seem to get away from.  (Not like I’m trying that hard.) In addition to the pilgrimage to see Peter, we also went by the entrance to Kensington itself (lined with flowers in honor of Diana’s birthday yesterday, which was nice to see), and went by the memorial fountain to Diana.  I love that fountain - I love that it was designed and is used for kids to run around and play in.  The whole area was full of families stripping their children down to their underwear for an impromptu water party.  Everyone was laughing and running around.  Kids were turning cartwheels and parents were in the water with their kids.  It was delightful and, I think, honored her spirit quite well.  

We also went to another London first for me - The Wallace Collection.  This museum was a residence that became an art museum because of the vast collection of the owner.  Unlike some of those museums I’ve been in before in Europe that feel like a bizarre attic of random junk, this one was pretty stunning.  The collection of armor was jaw-dropping.  I’ve never seen such beautiful weaponry.  Truly.  It was beautiful.  Usually when I see armor in a museum I kind of nod and walk on, but this was gorgeous.  There were also some other well known paintings, including a portrait of a young Victoria and The Swing, what inspired us to come in the first place (Jared studied it in school and wanted to come see it.). Actually, Jared’s been dead useful on this trip when it comes to art.  He took an art history in school and has been a fountain of little tidbits on paintings I hadn’t known about before.  We wouldn’t have discovered that little gem of a museum without him and I’m glad we did.  It’s small but wonderful.  I enjoyed our visit there very much. 

After that we went for a walk along the Thames and found dinner (well, dinner for me - the boys wanted to save room to go visit Jamie Oliver’s burger joint.  These burgers are what they described as “orgasmic”.  I have never in my life had a burger that tasted differently than any other burger to me and certainly none that turned me on so. . .you’ll have to take their word for it.)

Our second show was The Lion King, which was just as good as the last time I saw it.  There is certainly a benefit to seeing it in a theater where it isn’t touring - the set was particularly impressive in ways that the touring casts I’ve seen before can’t have.  I was especially taken this time by the powerful way the lionesses are portrayed.  I’d never really considered The Lion King as a particularly feminist story, but the way that the musical enhances the role of the women really touched me this time.  My favorite moment in the show was Nala’s Shadowlands.  Seeing the lionesses stand together in tragedy was beautiful. 

Today we began with a visit to the parks surrounding Buckingham Palace, where we arrived in time to see the Trooping of the Colours.  I’ve never seen this before because crowds, but it was fun to see the guards going by.  I wouldn’t make a special trip to see it, but I’m glad it happened while we were there.  After that we walked back to the National Gallery, always a safe bet.  Dad has a lower interest in museums than either Jared or I (I could probably museum hop my way around London and not get too sick of it), but he was a trooper and our visit was short.  I was particularly taken by a temporary installation of a piece called The Caged Bird Sings by Chris Ofili.  Ofili is a British watercolor painter who worked with some weavers in Edinburgh to create an enormous tapestry inspired by Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  The piece is enormous and looks like a painting from a distance.  Up close you can see the woven elements.  The color is so sharp and breathtaking - I was utterly stunned by the whole thing and thought the visit was worth it just to see it.  

The highlight of the day for me was Evensong at Westminster Abbey.  I love Evensong service in general, and have never heard it in Westminster.  The sermon today was inspired by the upcoming 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis.  The speaker discussed that the contents of the thesis were not nearly as important as the act of even daring to speak out in the first place, and transitioned into speaking about the power of music in converting hearts.  This is an appropriate topic in an Evensong service (which is mostly music), but there was a wonderful reminder of the ability of congregational singing to effect the spirit in others.  I am grateful for music and for the love of singing that I have.  (I should also probably take this time to apologize to my neighbors who frequently hear me belting showtunes at all hours of the night when I’m performing.  Sorry ‘bout that.)

Our final stop for the day was The Play That Goes Wrong, which was so awesome last year I had to bring my brother and dad back.  We all had a great time and it made me anxious to get back and get started on rehearsals of my own.  Nothing like seeing good theater to inspire you to put on a good show yourself. 

Incidentally, here are some statistics of the trip: 

  1. Miles walked: approximately 150. 
  2. Alpine Slide trips: 4
  3. Books in my suitcase (not including my journal/script): 10 (HOW?! - I came with 0.)
  4. Chocolate bars purchased: 21 (Oy.)
  5. Countries visited: 9

I am ready to go home.  As is often the case at the end of a trip, there comes a point where living out of a suitcase and spending so much money gets tiring and you long for your own bed.  I miss my cat.  I miss regular and reliable cell service.  I miss my friends and I’m excited to get my show underway and to get prepared for the school year.  All the same, this has been a truly unique and special trip for me.  It has been different than many of the other trips I’ve taken, especially since I’ve been visiting places that I’ve been before with people who haven’t been, and it’s given me new insight in how to get joy in the joy of others.  Traveling and being single can be inherently selfish experiences, but that slight shift in focus has been good for me.  I am grateful to be going home, and grateful to have come.  What a gift.

30 June 2017

London Day One

Yesterday was another travel day with not too much to report.  We visited Bern on the way back into Germany (where we had to drop our rental car).  I had to admit ignorance and that I had no idea that Bern was the capitol of Switzerland.  In my head it was Geneva, but that’s probably because of all the conventions/the Olympics?  I don’t know.  I have a pretty great depth of knowledge when it comes to the arts and history, but those blasted geography Jeopardy categories just kill me. 

We had a short time in Bern but I feel like we used the time well, and it was long enough to give me yet another city in Switzerland I need to go back to.  Bern (which sounds more like the American “bear” than “burn”) is home to a pretty awesome bear pit - the Bern bears are active and adorable and made Jared talk weird, so it was an all around win.  I knew going in that bears were the symbol of Bern, what I didn’t know was that St. Bernards came from the area as well - the whole town was full of large painted dog statues and we sort of put two and two together with one of those “oh. . . Duh,” kind of light bulbs. The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it’s so old - a good portion of the town dates into the Medieval period, including a particularly famous clock I saw on a Rick Steves episode once that was built in the early 13th Century.  We happened upon it a few minutes before it chimed.  Truthfully it was a little “meh”, I felt, but it was awesome to see something so old work so well for as long as it has?

After Bern we went across the border into Germany to our hotel in a town called Weil am Rhine where we dropped our luggage, then went to return our rental car and to head into Basel back in Switzerland. 

The fun thing about improvising as you travel is that you often end up doing something totally wonderful and unexpected and quirky.  That happened several times last year when we found some random hikes, new National Trust sites, and the ever memorable (if bizarre) Mystery Play in York.  It also means that sometimes you come across some true wastes of time.  That was Basel for us, unfortunately.  We went in the direction of what was assumed to be the old part of town (always a good bet for tourist options), but ended up walking through what must be the armpit of Switzerland down a seriously sketchy street where I saw at least one drug deal actually go down.  Eventually we found what we’d been hoping to see - the Three Countries Bridge where you can view France, Switzerland, and Germany all at the same time.  This also ended up being a bit of a joke because it was in the middle of a little peninsula in the harbor that we had to walk about a mile to get to and away from, only to find that it wasn’t actually a place where you could stand in all three countries as we’d thought.  Ah well.  Best laid plans?  The night ended well, at least.  We blew all our change in a grocery store on as many Haribo gummy bears as we could afford.  (In truth, I also bought some cough drops, not because I’m sick, but because they have different flavors to try! I’m a sucker for things like that. . . )

Today we started the final leg of our trip by heading into London.  They say that when you’re tired of London you’re tired of life, and I can tell you right now that I will never tire of London.  I adore this city.  I love the cacophony of languages and sounds and smells around every corner.  I love the culture, the history, the people.  So help me, one of these days I’m going to move here and never come back.

I got to embrace the life of a solo Londoner for a bit tonight when the boys went off to Les Miserables and I went off to see An American in Paris.  It’s tradition for me to see a show every night I’m here, but coming with two men who are interested in theatre but aren’t exactly theatre junkies meant playing it a little safer in the selection of shows than I normally would in such a short stay, and the other two shows we’re seeing are shows I’ve seen before.  I went rogue tonight and I’m so glad I did, partly because I enjoy time by myself and partly because Gershwin music is so dreamy.  The musical was more poignant than I anticipated, had an absolutely perfect cast, and was enough to turn this cold-hearted “romance will never find me!” cat woman into a puddle of “LOVE PLEASE COME FIND ME AND PLEASE SING LIKE THAT.”  Oh, London.  You always make me feel as though I were born in the wrong place in the wrong time.

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


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


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


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


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.

22 June 2017


If you travel enough around Europe, you start to get a sense for the different ways the 20th century has left its mark.  Most of Eastern Europe is still struggling in one form or another from the aftermath of two wars, either from the results of heavy bombing or communism or both.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t go to Eastern Europe - it just means a totally different visual experience after seeing cities like Paris or London, which faced the same wars with totally different recovery experiences. 

Dresden, then, is a very unique city.  The capital of Saxony, Dresden has a long history as a royal residence and city of culture.  The city is particularly well known for its production of porcelain, something it continues to do today.  During the early part of World War II, Dresden was a hub of Nazi activity. Some 6-7,000 Jews (or accused Jews) were evacuated from the city.  More than a thousand “undesirables” of multiple kinds were executed in the center of town.  It’s position on the eastern edge of Germany made it an important defense against the Russians, and it became a major communications and manufacturing center for the Axis.  As the war came to an end, Dresden became home to hundreds of thousands of refugees. 

To help pressure the Axis surrender, the RAF and American Air Force conducted a three day blitz on the city that killed somewhere between 18,000-25,000 people in addition to essentially flattening the central part of the city.  The city once known as the “Jewel Box” was reduced to rubble, and being part of the Eastern Bloc led to a slow recovery. 

You wouldn’t guess it to look at Dresden now.  Dresden as a city has been lovingly and carefully restored so that it maintains the charm and beauty it was known for for so many years.  Perhaps the most easily recognizable restoration project was the Frauenkirche.  This once great Lutheran church was considered a monument to the war for more than fifty years; left as a pile of rubble in the center of the city.  It wasn’t until 1994 that the city had the funds with which to restore the church, and in 2005 it was finished.  

Now, Dresden is known as “Silicon Saxony” and is once again at the center of technological development in Germany.  There is a museum dedicated to different types of vehicles, for example.  Another for the military.  We spent our time, however, in the more traditional art museum.  It’s a small collection (that looks like it will expand significantly in 2018 when they are finished restoring part of the old castle the art is stored in), but the collection was good.  The more art I see the more I find myself drawn to the Dutch and Italian artists, though turn of the century Spanish art is fascinating to me (Guernica is on my list of paintings I need to see before I die.)  

There were several paintings I really liked, but I think my favorite one was about the Holy Family fleeing Egypt.  What was so interesting to me about the piece was how hidden that moment was.  The focus of the painting is mostly on a normal pastoral scene with people going about their business (in what definitely isn’t anywhere near Egypt).  Hidden in the shadows off to the left are Mary and Jesus on a horse (donkey?) and Joseph leading them.  I’d never have known it was meant to be a religious painting at all if I hadn’t looked at the title.  Usually religious art from the period is so much more obvious - the evil are grotesquely ugly, the saintly are white faced and looking toward heaven.  To see this significant moment in the Savior’s childhood displayed like an Eye-Spy book fascinated me and reminded me of how important it is to watch for holy things.  We are asked to seek after anything that is virtuous, lovely, etc.  If we don’t actively look for it, we may not find it. 

We visited two churches today, the Frauenkirche (where everyone takes pictures even though you are asked not to - the workers in the building make no effort to stop anyone so I joined in without feeling too badly) and the Catholic Church (Die Katholische Hofkirche).  This building was also destroyed during the war, and has been rebuilt beautifully.  Ultimately today for me was a chance to reflect on the many ways in which people express and explore their faith.  Even when some of these expressions feel foreign to me, I am in awe of those who dedicate their time and efforts toward honoring things they feel are sacred.  So often I think we dismiss expressions of faith that don’t live in the schema we are used to as demonstrations of ignorance or foolishness at best and selfishness or greed at worst.  And I’m sure there are many examples that could justify ignorance, foolishness, greed, etc.  But when so many masses of people across so many generations willingly dedicate themselves to a belief - I have to believe that there is something there that is of great value that I can learn from.  Today I saw the value in comparing ancient scripture to the modern day in the museum.  I saw demonstrations of hope and healing in Christ in both the Catholic and Lutheran churches.  I looked around Dresden and saw a testament to the power of people working hard for a common good.  It was a good day. 

Of course, the day would not be complete until after we visited the Chocolate store we walked by.  I didn’t know such a thing even existed in Dresden, but as soon as we walked by I insisted on stopping back later on.  About ten minutes and twenty euros later, I left with six new bars to try - the first in a collection that will undoubtedly be ridiculous by the time I board my plane back to the states.  Ridiculous or perfect.  Potayto potahto.

Tomorrow we leave the Neumanns for the lovely city of Salzburg.  I will miss the time we’ve had with the Neumanns.  They have been unfailingly generous and kind hosts.  They’ve fed us amazing meals and treated us like family much closer in relation than we are in reality.  I love them and their family and hope to see them again soon.

21 June 2017


I know very little about the Czech Republic other than the history of the land being passed back and forth between other countries before it gained independence, but I have always wanted to visit Prague.  Truthfully, if you had asked me why, I wouldn't have known exactly what to say or I’d have said something vague about “hearing good things” about the city, which was about all I knew until we started doing some research for this trip.  Prior to this year, the chance to visit Prague was essentially the chance to check (Czech?) another country off the bucket list.  When we started doing more research, the chance to visit became more interesting and urgent.  

As it is I still feel like I only got the “cruise-ship edition” of the city - our time was extremely brief (only about five hours) so we barely got the chance to even start to process the old part of town, which is more crowded with obvious tourism than I’ve ever seen in Europe.  Everywhere you turn are guides asking to take you on tours.  Jared was wearing his Real Madrid shirt, which gave him the great excuse to speak to tour guides in whatever language they didn’t speak to him.  They spoke Spanish, he spoke Portuguese.  Portuguese, he’d speak English, and so on.  I’ve learned to just ignore.  Who needs a tour guide when you’ve studied Rick Steves?!

We made good use of our time.  I found the Czech Republic on the whole quite dirty compared to most of my other European experiences, particularly when it comes to graffiti.  It doesn’t seem to be the product of gang violence (at least not according to Gerlinde), just part of Czech culture.  Prague seems to have escaped most of that.  The subway is easy to navigate and well kept, a mercy given that none of us spoke a lick of Czech.  Prague itself seems to be a pretty big exception to the rest of the country that we saw today on our drive in and out - where most cities seem to be run down and still struggling to recover from the effects of the war and communism, Prague was spared the bombings of the war and remains one of the most historic and beautiful cities in Eastern Europe.  It is a crowded mess and does feel like a cruise port, but it is full of a variety of things to do and I’d love the chance to go back and do it more justice. 

Ultimately today we settled for walking through the historic part of the city and over the Charles Bridge, which was built in the 1300s and still serves the city as a footpath across the river.  The views of the city on either side of the river from here are lovely.  Then we went back into the historic district to visit the Jewish Quarter. 

Prague has a long connection with Jews, and for many years they have housed the largest (or one of the largest) populations of Jews in Europe.  As with most cities, the Jews were invited in and expelled several times over, but each time they returned to Prague they flourished.  At one point, Prague held about a quarter of the Jews in all of Europe, which is impressive.  As I’m sure you’ve guessed, that didn’t last, and the Jews were eventually relegated to the specific part of town where the Jewish Quarter stands today.  At first it was an unspoken rule, but it became law.  Jews in Prague enjoyed many luxuries because of their numbers - there were about six synagogues, they even had their own government and their own flag (which they were allowed to fly).  

Of course, being confined in such large numbers to one part of town has its problems over the years as well.  One such problem was in a place to bury their dead.  They were allowed one cemetery - this small plot houses more than 200,000 people (often buried about twelve deep) in a small piece of land between two of the synagogues.  Headstones crowd around each other only inches apart, barely enough distance between them to read the names at times.  It was a sobering sight.  Inside one of the other buildings is a memorial to all the Jews who were killed in concentration camps during the war.  Each wall throughout the building have names inscribed of victims - going through room after room after room of nothing but names is intimidating and shocking.  I don’t think my love of Jewish history will ever fade, nor do I think I’ll ever fully comprehend how people can be so horrible to one another.

We didn’t have much time to see all the features of the Jewish Quarter - after a tour of a synagogue we had to find food and head back so that we could catch our bus back to Germany.  We did have time to stop for a pastry, though (there’s always time for that.) Today we tried a Prague specialty called “trdelnik”.  Dough is wrapped around a pole and dipped into a sugar and crushed walnut mix, then cooked over a spit.  You can eat them fresh off the pole or with ice cream.  Mine had some Nutella on it as well.  It was much larger than I could possibly have eaten on my own but well worth the calories.  Delicious.  Heaven bless the many people who have come up with so many delightful uses for flour and sugar and butter to be consumed!

Our night ended with a “family dinner” at Juergen and Gerlinde’s son’s home.  His little boys ran around and played football/soccer with Jared, peed in the bushes, dove into the blow-up pool completely naked, and played all sorts of other games (real and imagined) that reminded me that childhood is universal and there are some things (like those damned fidget spinners) that are part of that universality.  Even being as crippled as I am with conversation this week, I had lots of fun watching those little boys play with the same physical and mental abandon that you see in children on the other side of the world.  

20 June 2017


I am admittedly biased against train travel in Germany.  The last time I was here I spent an enormous amount of time hauling my suitcase up and down staircases (my fault, not the Germans’ fault) and cramming into non-air conditioned cars filled with drunk football fans (that one we can blame on the Germans.)  When we started planning this trip, I pushed for us to rent a car instead.  We couldn’t avoid a little bit of train travel, and it was enough to make me feel quite justified in the car rental. Yesterday’s train from Berlin to Dresden was so overcrowded with students that we ended up on bucket seats in the hallway for two hours.  (Truthfully, we were probably lucky to get even those.  I don’t think many of those without reserved seats knew that these hidden seats existed, but I did, so we did, at least, get a place to sit.)

Once the stress of being in crowded train cars left (claustrophobia stresses me out), we were able to laugh at the situation.  Mostly we were just glad we made the train.  We were also able to re-assert an important traveling in Europe lesson: buy tickets for trains in advance.

The rest of yesterday was mostly spent in the car with me crowded in the back between the men and trying to get a whiff of air conditioning.  (I never feel more like an American than when I realize how dependent I am on climate control.) 

The rest of the day was a fairly relaxed evening socializing with Juergen and Gerlinde Neumann, who are distantly related to me.  We have a common ancestor with Gerlinde, funnily enough, though she’s not a Neumann by birth and Juergen is.  Since my German is limited to things like “Guten tag” and “danke”, I mostly sit and listen to the conversations, but we make it work.  

Today was much busier.  We spent the day enjoying the area around Spitzkunnersdorf and the adjoining cities.  Spitzkunnersdorf’s Rathaus contains hand written records dating back to the early 1600s that we got to see, including the records of the births and baptisms of several of my ancestors (this, by the way, we looked at while the radio serenaded us to the 80s power ballad classic “You’re the Voice”.  I nearly died trying not to laugh.) 

We also learned a bit more about the town itself, of which Juergen used to the the burgermeister.  Spitzkunnersdorf itself was founded in 1347 and began primarily as a location for weavers.  In fact, many of the homes in the area have distinct arches around the ground floor to help stabilize the structure of the house since the movement of the looms often caused architectural problems otherwise.  Once the engine powered looms took over the dense population moved elsewhere, but some still remain.  The town now has a population of just over a thousand.  It was spared the bombings of World War II, but suffered a great deal under communism from 1949-1989.  Even so, it’s hard to see that impact now.  The town is beautifully kept and peaceful.  It’s easy to see the effort spent in upkeep compared to the neighboring town of Zittau and even more so compared to the nearest city in Poland.  Juergen drove us (briefly - he doesn’t like Poland) over the border and the difference is striking.  Poor Poland suffered so intensely during and after the war - they’re still recovering from that toll. 

The highlight of the day to me was visiting the church in Spitzkunnersdorf where my ancestors worshiped.  I’ve been once before, but the spirit felt the same this time.  There is something so special about being in a place where I know the foundation of faith was built for my family. I come from several lines of people who have sacrificed for what they believed in.  We have not always believed the same thing or practiced faith in the same way, but that legacy is a powerful one to me.  I hope I can honor this tradition and keep the ball rolling, so to speak. 

We also got the chance to visit Zittau (where we had lunch) and a local Christmas store run by a friend of Gerlinde’s.  The shop is small but packed with great decorations, many of which are hand made by the shop owners.  I picked up something for myself and a gift for a friend as well.

Tomorrow we get the chance to go to Prague, which I am excited about, not least of which because I think it will put us all on equal language footing again.  One thing that has been challenging about the last few days is in feeling so conversationally crippled.  In addition to knowing my love of England, it doesn’t take long for someone who meets me to realize that communication is a big part of who I am.  It might even be the most obnoxious and intimidating part of meeting me, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I miss being part of conversations I can keep up with!