Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Switzerland and Germany

We began our trip with a couple of days in Paris to enjoy the city by ourselves. We took about a zillion photos of the Eiffel Tower, climbed the tower and bought souvenirs. I had a delicious conversation with a fellow Texas in the shade of the tower while my people and her people were all going higher than my new friend and I wanted to climb. I can do the second level of the Eiffel Tower but not the third one…not the top. I’m not afraid of traffic, strangers, guns, knives or dogs but I am afraid of heights. I’m not afraid of being robbed or being called upon to pray in front of hundreds of people. I’m not afraid of the open water of the largest ocean but I am afraid of heights and I don’t even apologize for this since it is based on the very simple logic that I can swim but I can’t fly.

We ate everything in sight in Paris. It seemed to me that the people were a lot friendlier than I remember them in 2002. I followed the standard instruction to enter a shop as though I was entering someone’s home. I greeted the store keeper with a lilting, “Bonjour!” and left with an equally musical “Merci.” It was almost a song we sang to each other, a happy little tune—“Bonjour! Merci!” I also found the magical phrase I had been missing...the phrase that opened doors for me: “I would like”…”Je voudrais” With those three phrases I negotiated Paris with glee. Bonjour! Je voudrais chocolat negro. Je voudrais beaucoup chocolat negro. Merci!

However, I did have a LOT of trouble converting from Spanish to French at a restaurant and stumbled through France with a garbled, “Si, uh, Oui” And sometimes, “Gracias, uh, Bonjour, I mean, Merci.” I had better luck in Italy where “Grazie” is so close to “Gracias.” And I can be amazing at rolling my "Rs" when I get going.

I have now perfected the art of attending a wine tasting without actually tasting any wine. It’s really amazing how little attention people pay you when you just stand still off to one side and keep your mouth shut. It’s so seldom I stay on the perimeter of anything, especially without talking, that it seems a little weird. This is the third or fourth wine tasting I’ve been to since I quit drinking but it still feels like a new parlor trick--a kind of cool one.

I started  taking a photo from our various hotel rooms. It was fun in Paris since we had this great view. Well, you could get this view if you held the camera outside the window and turned it as far to the left as I could.  It was a fun way to document the trip and only a couple of hotels had lame views from the room.

From France we went to Switzerland.  And I took another photo from our room.

In Switzerland I visited the Swiss Army Knife store. In Switzerland. How cool is that? The newest model has a flash drive built in. Now you say to yourself, “Well, you just gotta buy that one.” But, for some reason I can’t figure out, the knife just didn’t call to me and I left empty handed. But at least I can say I went to the store.

The air in Switzerland is so clean I couldn’t get over it. They are very big on the environment there. Very much into wind and solar power, recycling and growing their own food. I kept thinking of how clean the air is. I ended up calling it “The Very Breath of God.”

One late afternoon I could hear the bells on the cows ring as they walked home for the evening. It was a soft and gentle sound.  I took a video just so you could hear the bells.  Then I realized you don't want to spend your time listening to a video just to hear something so quiet that you might not even be able to hear it.  Just trust me on this one.  It was very musical. And this wasn't something for a movie like "The Sound of Music."  This was real daily life here. Kind of like when you and I hear sirens at night on First Street.

And then we went to Munich where the view from our room was so forgettable that I have already forgotten except that I didn’t take a photo.

In Munich we had a choice of two extra side excursions. One group went on a walking tour of Munich geared to the story of the Third Reich. Beaven and I opted to go with the other group to see Dauchau. I wanted to place my body in the same space as the concentration camp. I wanted to know if I would feel something. After feeling “something” spiritual at the Mayan ruins and after getting strong negative vibes in a courtroom once I wondered how sensitive my body is to the war between good and evil. I wondered what I might feel standing on the section of earth where some of the most horrible things humans can do to each other happened.

It was the end of the day and I was tired to start with. But it was one of those things I felt like I just had to do--if for no other reason than pay my respects to the innocent people who were imprisoned there. And how could I complain about being tired on my way to see a concentration camp? It would have been like complaining about missing a beauty shop appointment in New Orleans the morning after Katrina.

We took the city subway to meet the guide who got us on the city bus to take us to the camp. Which now sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We got out of the bus and walked toward the camp. We passed a quiet, clean, sparkling spring running across our path. I took its picture because it looked so innocent, so clean and green and fresh and innocent.

Then we passed poplar trees that looked equally innocent. I asked if these trees were here in 1945.  Did they see it?  The answer was not these trees but other poplars just like them.

And then we reached the gate. The famous gate that reads in German, “Work Shall Make You Free.”

The grounds are stark and bare. We passed the foundations of narrow buildings about 100 yards in length set side by side. I counted 20 of them. There was one left intact and this was the building our guide took us to see. The building held small individual cells, each one around ten by ten feet square. He said they put seven men in each one. There were a few cells that had been set aside and marked because they had housed special political prisoners, some Catholic priests and a few political dissidents.

One of the cells had held Martin Niemoller who was famous for writing:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
They showed us another similar building but instead of small cells these had larger rooms but with triple decker bunks that held three or four men per bunk. They had to sleep on their sides because the there wasn’t room to sleep on their backs. It reminded me of the drawings I have seen of the slave ships coming over from Africa.

At the end of the tour I was beat. Emotionally, intellectually and physically beat. I left half-way through the last building where they showed the gas chambers and ovens that the official literature claimed were never used at Dachau but looked pretty damned used to me. And I stood for a while thinking, “Now what do I do?”

What do you do after a visit like that? I had no dramatic spiritual insights or epiphanies.  I felt nothing; nothing of the evil that had lived here, nothing of the pain or fear but I was still emotionally drained. What do you do with what I had just seen? I went to sit on a stone bench in the shade. The bench was cool and of some comfort. Soon, I was joined by a young woman and her two children. One of the little girls was about five years old. Her father was still inside and they were waiting for him.

I immediately fell in love with Georgina who was from New York. She showed me with pride that her Frisbee could fold and unfold. And I suddenly wanted to play Frisbee with that little girl more than I’ve ever wanted to do anything in my life. I needed simple, innocent joy like I had never needed it before.

So we played Frisbee for a while. I asked her mother, “What do we do now?” And her answer was that we keep on going. The story of the concentration camps, over 200 of them, has no happy ending. We have to write the ending ourselves. We teach our children what we saw and learned; we tell them later, when they are ready to understand. And you just keep on going.

We say that this can never happen again. We have better communication technology and something like this could never happen again without civilized people knowing. Yet, where is Joseph Kony and when was the last time you heard anything about him?

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