Time For Some Sweeping Generalizations


Munchen

Isn’t it funny when your broad generalizations and assumptions are proven to be true?

And isn’t it funny when they aren’t?

Having spent three packed days touring the beautiful city of Munich, I have some broad and sweeping generalizations to share. Feel free to shake your heads or just laugh at me. Feel free to agree!

  1. Germany is just as organized, clean, orderly and proper as I always thought it would be. Of course, we were here a couple of years ago and saw Berlin and part of the North, so we already had an idea, but holy standardization! The gardens are all neat. I am not kidding. Every little Bavarian house has window boxes filled with pink and red geraniums. Every lawn is trimmed.  There wasn’t one fallen tree or broken branch anywhere.  Even the dogs are orderly and polite. People bring them to restaurants and cafes, they go into stores. They walk sedately on leashes and sit down when their owners think the word “sit.”
  2. Schnitzel is as good as it sounds. Really. Seriously. Ever since the “Sound of Music” first came out, I have yearned for “schnitzel with noodles.” It is crisp, crunchy, tender and yummo. Last night we had it at an Austrian gasthouse. The serving we were given will last us for days.
  3. People are people. Some of them are old and some of them aren’t. They come in all colors, sizes and shapes. I have seen the most gorgeously dressed women, with gleaming brown skin and dark, deep eyes, dressed in swathes of pure white gauze, smelling like a garden of jasmine. I have seen tiny white-blond toddlers in pink shorts chattering away as they skipped along beside their mothers. People have exchanged smiles, and people have looked away when I sent them a smile. In general, I find native Germans and Austrians to be helpful, polite, friendly but not intrusive. I like them!
  4. I love German showers. I know, it sounds stupid. But they are so…..clean! We aren’t staying in pricey places, believe me. But the bathrooms are all equipped with these fabulous glass sided showers. No tile anywhere. Some kind of floor that looks like wood or wide slate and the glass sides and door (when there is one) are firmly attached to that floor. A small drain is along one side. The shower heads are big “rain” style things and I now yearn for one in my little home bathroom.
  5. As I feared, people here are in complete horror about the President of the U.S. They understand that he is interested only in the well-being of his own country, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what happens to the rest of the world. They’re afraid that his lack of understanding (also referred to as “his stupidness”) will mean that he doesn’t get the fact that we are all interdependent and that if they fall, so will we. They no longer trust the U.S.  To quote one very intelligent and highly informed friend, “But how could so many Americans vote for this terrible person? We hear his words about women, about immigrants. How could even one person vote for this person?” Good question.
  6. Home is where the heart is. I miss my dog. I miss my grandchildren like a lost limb. I miss the smell of my own woods. But the world is a beautiful place, and the people who live here are fascinating creatures. Tomorrow I will be able to move on to all those cliched perceptions of Italians when we take the train to Milan!

Auf Weidersehn!

 

Leaving On A Jet Plane


Paul and I are about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in the most wonderful way imaginable. We are about to jet off to Europe for a three week vacation, the longest we have ever taken.

We’ll start in Germany, spending a week with very dear friends. There will be laughing, eating, drinking, music and a lot of catching up on each other’s lives after two years apart.

From there we head South into Italy, my home country, where we hope to connect with distant relatives and learn about my family’s pre-immigration past.

I am SO excited that I can’t even stand it!!!

But.

I’m wondering what I will say when we are asked about the current situation here in the US. I mean, I know that I’ll assure whoever it is I’m talking to that most of us did NOT vote for Trump and despise his policies.

But my bigger worry is how to explain the way Americans are behaving toward each other these days.

How do I explain that half of us think it’s absolutely fine to mock and berate the other half? What do I say about one side refusing to serve food or bake cakes for the other half?

Is there a reasonable way to explain the curses, the vulgarities, the insulting names that each side is using on the other?

Can “Well, they did it first!” be translated into German or Italian without sounding like the absolute lamest excuse given by any kindergartener ever?

What do I say?

I can imagine myself trying to explain. “Well, I know it sounds like we Americans absolutely hate each other, but……”

But, what?

Do we hate each other? Do we really want each other to be humiliated, to be denied hospitality, to be spat upon?

How far away are we from violence in the streets, as rival groups hurl both insults and stones at each other?

How did we get here?

What do I say?

“I don’t know what has happened to us,” I might begin. “I remember when we used to argue at dinner, but keep on passing the dessert plate.”  Maybe I’ll point to the obvious issues with corporate media, and how that has lead to opposing viewpoints replacing factual news.

“I remember when we used to turn on the evening news, knowing that we’d get the same information no matter which channel we picked, but watching our favorite news reporters.”

Sigh.

How do I explain the sheer ugliness and vitriol and rage that has engulfed us all over here in the “land of the free”?

I don’t know.

I share that rage, and in some cases that ugliness and vitriol. There have been a boatload of moments in the past two years when I’ve wanted to strangle the life out of someone in the news.

How do I explain that to people who have lived through the violence and horrors of fascism and World War? What do I say? How do I describe my fervent desire to oppose what I see as immoral, without losing my own moral center?

I don’t know.

I truly do not know.

But before our plane lands on distant shores, I promise that I will have learned to say, “I love my fellow citizens” in at least two languages.

Maybe we should all be memorizing that phrase in English.

europe_4 pays

 

Nonni in Germany: The Bike Episode #2


If you’ve been reading this little travel journal, you’ll remember that I was a very brave Nonni when I rode a bicycle to the grocery store in Berlin. I mean, OK, so I crashed into a pile of stinging nettles, but I did ride the damn bike, right?

And, boy howdie. Was I proud of myself when I got home!

So when Katja and Jorg took us up to the gorgeous North Sea Island of Sylt, I was only mildly alarmed to hear that we were going to be taking a 45 km ride on e-bikes.

Yup. E-bikes. As in “electronically enhanced bikes that will make you go way faster than you would ever have gone on a regular bike.”

I was…excited!  No, really, I was. The island is so unbelievably beautiful that the idea of being able to see the dunes up close was my absolute dream come true.

I am a confirmed ocean addict, and this was like being in Heaven.

Seriously. The NORTH freaking sea! Where the Vikings sailed! Hell, yeah. I wanted to ride my (big scary) e-bike.

So off we went that cool, sunny morning. I was elated to find that I was able to balance the bike and ride along smoothly and easily. That electric boost was like magic. There I was, zooming along the dunes, the heather and sea on either side, my gray hair blowing in the wind.

It was the most fabulous morning. We stopped for cake (HUGE) and coffee at a beautiful spot on the island. We rode along the tops of the dune. We passed a lighthouse and fields of cows and sheep.  In the early afternoon we arrived at our destination, the little city of Westerland. We shopped and then sat down for a cold beer.

Eventually we headed back toward the northern part of the island, where our hotel was located. We had already ridden farther than I’ve ever biked in my life, but the battery power made the ride easy.

Easy until the moment when the people in front of me found a reason to stop suddenly.

You see, I had mastered that whole “pedal your bike and move forward” thing, and I had gotten pretty good at the “balance on two wheels” thing. But: I was NOT able to stop suddenly.

Uh, uh. No way.

So when Katja stopped in front of me, and Lucas stopped quickly behind her, I knew that I was doomed. I simultaneously pressed back on the foot brakes, squeezed both hand brakes, closed my eyes and made a squealing sound that was reminiscent of a pig being skewered by a fork.

And I face planted on the bike trail in front of me.

Actually, truth to tell, I was fairly graceful as I went over the handlebars. I’m told that I landed relatively gently on my right knee, right hand and right cheekbone. In that order.

All I know is that I saw the cement approaching my face and had just enough presence of mind to turn my head a bit. My bifocals flew off and I found myself on the ground. I have NO idea where the bike was, but it must have been pretty damn close.

I looked up at the horrified faces of my hosts, my husband and a very pretty young German woman. I had just enough comprehension to hear her ask if I was OK and to think, “Nice hair!” Then she was gone.

My biggest worry at that point was “Oh, no!!!! I’m staying at the first upscale resort of my LIFE and I’m going to get home with a black eye and all my face skin removed!”

Eventually I realized that I was in more or less one piece, and I got shakily up to my feet. My glasses were intact. My knee still bent. My expensive new athletic sandals were unscathed. I was completely and totally faked out, but nothing was broken.

I smiled and reassured everyone (especially poor Paul) and got back on the death machine. And off we went, to complete the 15 km left between our location and a good hot shower.

I did OK, overall.

Until Katja stopped to check on me, at which point I more or less screeched, “DO. NOT. STOP.”

It was a very exciting day.

I’m proud that I did it, and glad that I didn’t quit riding and demand a taxi. After another hour or so, we got back to the hotel.

And that’s where the funny part of this story begins. I’ll be back with more!

 

 

Nonni in Germany: “What’s that noise?”


One of the best things about traveling is how much it teaches you about yourself, and about your home place.

We had a few observations about our time in Germany that lead Paul and I to question a lot of what we look at as normal life in the United States.

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Let me give you three examples.

The first event happened while we were walking through the streets of Berlin with our friends. It was a cool, cloudy day and we had taken a beautiful boat tour of the city along the River Spree. Now we were walking toward the Reichstag, winding through the crowds of people on the busy streets.

Berlin is very quiet. In spite of all of the traffic, we rarely heard a horn beep or a siren wail. But now a police car went by with its siren on. Paul and I both stopped, but our German friends kept walking. My heart rate had picked up and I wondered how the others were feeling.

We found out that when a police car stops in the city with its siren running, the Americans think “Is it a terrorist attack? Is it a shooter?”  Our German hosts think, “Somebody parked in the wrong place.”

Interesting.

The second event was late one night. We were going to sleep at our hosts’ beautiful little house on the outskirts of the old East Berlin. The neighborhood is quiet and serene, even though it lies within the city borders.

Our window was open to let in the breeze, and we suddenly heard a series of loud, percussive booms. We looked at each other, both of us slightly alarmed.

“That’s not thunder.”

Paul went to the window, looked out. Everything looked peaceful, but the sounds continued. We both thought next about guns. Was there a shoot out happening somewhere? Was it a terrorist attack?

The house was silent. Whatever the noises were, our German friends were sleeping through it.

The next morning we asked about the noise, and found out that it was most likely fireworks being displayed as part of a concert somewhere in the city.

The last event is the one that stays with me and bothers me the most. We had just had coffee and dessert at an old, typically German restaurant on the shore of small lake in Berlin. It was a beautiful morning, and the area was filled with families boating, kids chatting, and people enjoying tea or coffee on the deck.

As we walked across the parking lot to our car, we saw two men getting out of another vehicle. One of the men, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, was wearing a baggy pair of camo pants, heavy black boots, and a black vest with many deep pockets. His forearms were heavily tattooed and his ears were decorated with large gauged earrings.

I whispered to Paul, “Yikes.” Katja looked at me with slight surprise. “Are you looking at his arms?”

“No,” I said. “But that vest……”   She looked puzzled.  I explained, “He looks like he is armed.”

Katja and Lucas were both surprised. “No!” she said. “He is a worker. He has tools in the pockets.”

Lucas summed it up. “Karen, nobody here has a gun.”

So that makes me think about life in the U.S. In the country that loves to call itself “free”, I am unable to walk past an innocent young man in a vest because I am so afraid of being shot. I don’t have the freedom to enjoy a lovely morning, because my assumption is that most of the people around me are carrying guns. I’m afraid of my fellow citizens, and I’m right to be so vigilant.

I live in fear of terrorism in a country where very little has happened. Meanwhile, in a European country that is filled with refugees from the Middle East, our friends go about their lives with no fear.

Makes you think.

 

Nonni In Germany


Well, what a two weeks this has been. The trip of a lifetime has come and gone and this old Nonni is trying to put it all into perspective.

Paul and I have been in Germany for the past 13 days, staying with friends we were lucky enough to meet when their son became our exchange student 18 months ago. We fell in love with him, we fell in love with his parents. They visited us, and now they have hosted us on the most incredible vacation of our entire lives.

At some point I will write about the gorgeous ocean views on the North Sea, about the crazy good food, the well behaved dogs and happy kids, the immaculate gardens and efficient trains. At some point I’m sure I’ll write about how it feels to know that you’ve made permanent connections with someone who lives a life entirely different from your own far across the world.

I know that I’ll have a lot to write about the dark and powerful history here and how the people respond to it. I have so much to share about the Wall and the holocaust and the Hitler years.

Right now, though, I’d like to start my travel journal with a story told through the eyes of those I’ve been lucky enough to meet here in Germany. We have been in Berlin, in a suburb of Berlin and on a gorgeous, wealthy resort island up on the North Sea. We’ve met people of all ages, some native German, some immigrants from other parts of the world. We’ve met people of various ages and occupations, and with vastly differing experiences.

They all share one thing, though, and that is their opinion of Donald Trump.

Please click the link here to read the article that I wrote for Liberal America this week. It’s called “A Writer in Berlin.” See what these people have to say about the U.S. presidential election.

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In front of the Reichstag

Being Open


Keeping the heart open

Keeping the heart open

If I’ve learned anything in the past year, its that I need to let myself be open to new experiences.  I need to let go of the “what ifs” and embrace the “let’s sees”.

I first learned the lesson last winter when we took in Lucas, our German exchange student.  That one was easy for me, though.  A boy was in need of a loving home.  I was a mom in need of boy to love.  Easy.   We opened our doors, took Lucas in, and allowed ourselves to enjoy six months with someone to cook for, someone to greet us in the morning, someone to worry about, someone to help with chores.

And through Lucas, we were able to have our second “just be open” experience. That one came when we got to know his Mom and her husband through the miracle of Skype.  We had emailed them, or course, as soon as Lucas came to live with us. “We’ve got him! He’s here, we’ll take good care of him”, we messaged.  Our emails went back and forth for a couple of weeks, and then Lucas asked us to Skype.  Paul and I don’t particularly enjoy the kind of forced conversation that comes with Skype, and we didn’t even know these people at all. We speak no German, and don’t know much about the country or culture. “Twenty minutes”, we told each other, “We’ll just say hello, show them the house, answer any questions they might have.”  So Lucas made the connection, we put on good clothes and sat somewhat awkwardly on the couch with him between the two of us.

Two hours later, we finally said good bye with many promises from both sides to “do this again soon!” Kisses were blown, hands were waved, “Bye-bye” and “guten nacht” were called out.  We logged off and looked at each other in amazement. “Wow”, Paul said, “They’re fantastic!”

It was only this week that we learned that the very same conversations had happened in Germany before and after that Skype session. “Twenty minutes “, Katja had assured her husband before the call.  “We’ll just introduce ourselves and thank them.  We don’t even know these people.”   And then, “Wow!” when the call was ended.

Because we were open to something new when Lucas needed a home, because we didn’t let our common sense talk us out of it or remind us of all of the possible complications and inconveniences, we had let ourselves make a connection with a wonderful couple across the world from us.

Pretty sweet!

Fast forward 9 months, and you will come to our third “open yourself” lesson in this surprising life.  After more long Skype sessions, glasses of wine “shared” vicariously on the screen, and many long stories, some laughs and even some tears, we had arranged to have Katja, Lucas and Jörg stay with us for a week this month. And we are in the middle of planning a trip to see them in Germany next summer.

Can you imagine? Two total strangers (technically) coming to live in our small house with our big dogs, leaving the beautiful city of Berlin and spending time in the wilderness!? We were nervous but so excited to host them!  It has been even better than we could have dreamed!

We feel like we’ve known them our whole lives.  What a joy to find people who are so smart, compatible, flexible, honest, easy.  What a week!  We took a trip to the Cape, went to Portsmouth New Hampshire, hosted a cocktail party for them and took a trip into Boston.

And it was in Boston where our final serendipitous encounter took place.

We were at Faneuil Hall, the historic old seaport area where sites from the American Revolution brush up against trendy shops and upscale restaurants.  A fun and vibrant part of our city, and one that Paul and I have seen many times before.  Our guests went to do some shopping while we walked around the original Faneuil Hall building itself.  And it was there, in front of a display about the first African American Regiment to fight in the Civil War that we made the acquaintance of a young woman from Seattle.  We started to chat about history, but moved quickly onto more personal stories.  The woman was pretty and warm and it was so easy to talk with her.  She had a fresh, honest face and I liked her at first glance. Truly, if I were to choose a word to describe her, it would have to be “open”.  Within a few minutes of meeting, I had told her that I was a retired teacher who loves history, and she’d told us that she was the mother of a three year old girl, and was on a work trip to Boston from Seattle. She began to cry as she said this, with the kind of gentle, graceful tearfulness that I thought only Ingrid Bergman could achieve.  As she wiped her tears and ruefully explained that she hadn’t ever been away from her daughter for five whole days, and missed her terrible, I opened my arms and pulled her into a hug.

It sounds pretty strange as I write this; what kind of lunatic old couple walks around talking to strangers and then hugging them? We didn’t even know each others’ names yet, but here she was, this tall, fair woman, crying on my shoulder.

We found out as we continued our conversation that she was also grieving the sudden recent loss of a close friend. Another hug for that one! And then we found out that she speaks fluent German, and that she was rushing around to see a few historical sites before returning to her hotel at dusk.  She was alone, and didn’t know the city, so she wanted to be safely in her room by dark.  She would be heading home the next morning, so this was her one chance to see part of the city.

So naturally, having learned to be open to new people and new experiences, we invited her to join us for dinner in the North End. She was surprised and delighted; see? She’s very open!

We walked through the city with our new German friends and our new American acquaintance.  We talked all the way, both languages flowing.  We had an incredibly delicious meal in a little restaurant called “Bella Vista” on Hanover St. We ate a pile of pastries and fresh cannoli.

And we hugged and exchanged contact information as we said good night and headed home.

So we find ourselves, having learned to be more open, with an upcoming trip to Germany and an open invitation to visit Seattle.  We find ourselves with new close friends in Katja and Jörg, a third son in Lucas, and the memory of having offered comfort and friendship to a beautiful young woman in a tough spot.

What could be better than that?