What I Learned While Spending the Holidays in Germany

In the depths of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

I just spent two weeks with my family visiting friends and relatives in Germany for the holidays. This was a celebration of my recovery from cancer one year ago. I knew I was taking a chance by traveling abroad while still in recovery, but cancer teaches you that you must live every day to its fullest.

Today, the first day back home, my head was swirling with sights and sounds of Germany, so I decided to take a walk to ground myself. While walking along the beach, I thought about what I had learned during my visit. These are the thoughts I want to share today.

Travel: Everyone who can should travel to an unfamiliar place whenever possible. It does wonders for the spirit to have all one’s senses on high alert while taking in the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar locale. What everyone is doing, the language that is being spoken, the unfamiliar routines, the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar place all become very vivid in comparison to our familiar everyday life at home. Comparisons are inevitable, but the real joy in traveling is allowing oneself to become part of the flow and engage with the new venue as much as possible. It made me feel very alive to be somewhere new and different.

Language: For me so much of the flavor of a place depends on the language spoken there. I really wanted to make an effort to begin to learn German so I could communicate better with friends and family. My experience was so much richer for the efforts I made to do so. Everyone appreciated my “baby German” and was very kind and helpful. I felt like much less of an observer and more like a participant in my new surroundings. I was excited about each new word or phrase I mastered.

Commonalities and differences: I read a very touching article in the New York Times today written by a Turkish immigrant speaking about his first impressions of America. When he first arrived, he thought the little red flag on everyone’s mailbox indicated an unusual degree of patriotism, until he figured out that those who had mailboxes with raised flags were actually able to send their letters without even leaving home. To him this was a revelation and a sure sign that America is an amazing place to live! As I compared small details in everyday life, I, too, was amazed by how ordinary things like doing the laundry could be so different. It is refreshing to learn that we do not have the final word on ingenuity; there are many ways to make a pot of coffee.

National character: Stereotypes prevail, it is said, because they are somewhat true. I have lived abroad in two countries, France and Germany, and in both cases found the people to live up to their reputations to a certain extent. The French are smug and stylish and not always friendly to Americans. The Germans are less vain and more serious. They, too, do not always find Americans to be charming as you will learn in the next paragraph.

We had just entered a charming bar and were “borrowing ” an unused chair from another table to accommodate our party of five. This invoked the wrath of the manager. My son, who spent a year living in Germany explained that we should have politely asked if this was permissible. Lesson learned. There are differences to be understood and respected. After all, as Americans we have our own idiosyncrasies, don’t we?

National shame and pride: For most of my adolescence and young adulthood I felt shame about my German heritage because of the events of WWII. I even avoided visiting Germany the first two or three times I went to Europe. Then my son, who studied German at Georgetown University, decided to spend his year abroad studying in German at Humboldt University in the heart of Berlin. When we visited him there we got to know the family he lived with which completely changed my feelings about being Of German descent. The family members were well educated and well informed and they acknowledged their tainted history with humility. But they were committed to the idea that the German people, who had also suffered a great deal during WWII, were trying to remember the past while rebuilding their future. Their current leader, Angela Merkel, who was born and raised behind “the iron curtain,” insists on a compassionate approach to the refugees from the Mideast now arriving daily by the thousands. Many young Germans, including two daughters of the family we stayed with and my son who is spending an extra week with them, are volunteering in the Syrian refugee camps in Berlin.

Cafe culture: What I knew I would miss most upon my return home is the cafe culture of Europe. Everywhere we visited in Germany, whether a small town or big city, there is always a bar or cafe you can stop in for some respite, conversation, and food and drinks. And no one chases you out! You are welcome to stay as long as you like, provided, of course that you are behaving appropriately. My German friends explain that this is part of their culture and they even have a word for it: gemütlichkeit. This means being comfortable and cozy in your immediate surroundings. In these cafes and bars people were not glued to their IPhones; instead, they were talking to each other animatedly, young and old, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I think we here in America would benefit from less technology, which is driving us apart, and more opportunities to relax together and share our interests.

All in all, I did feel rejuvenated by my travel experience, even in the dead of winter. I promise to share photos of our trip next week!

Beachcombing for the Holidays

Yesterday our family was getting anxious about our plans to go to Germany for the holidays.  Mind you, one of the reasons for taking this holiday trip  abroad was to avoid the usual holiday tensions: the decorating, cleaning the house, getting the right gifts, making plans and so on. But the joke is on us. Instead, we are dealing with endless details like booking flights and getting the right seats (two of us have special circumstances), renting a car for part of our trip, contacting and recontacting the friends and relatives we’ll be visiting, trying to coordinate everyone’s needs and parameters; and getting appropriate gifts that won’t weigh us down.

It was a beautiful Saturday, so my daughter suggested that she and I go for a walk,  one of our favorite things to do.  We drove toward the beach about two miles away to walk on the “causeway,” a stretch of land with a straight path along the Long Island Sound on one side and on the other side of the road a beautiful wetlands area fed by the Sound.  The walk itself is about a mile and a half roundtrip and usually offers some form of nature to enjoy whatever the season.

That day was remarkably quiet.  For a place that can be quite windy, there was barely a breeze.  It was 3 o’clock; the sun was already beginning to set and the colors were beautiful fall colors, though somewhat muted by the time of day. We both remarked on the lack of bird activity.  In Spring and Fall we are often rewarded by the activities of the osprey who build their nests on very tall poles, and care for their single (most often) offspring diligently through the early fall.  It’s an absolute joy to watch the parents soar overhead as they hunt for fish to feed their baby; hence, their common name fishhawk.

The winter ducks hadn’t yet arrived so we couldn’t engage in one of our other favorite pastimes of spotting them riding the crests of the waves in small flocks, diving for food and making their unique calls to each other.  No osprey; no breeze; no winter ducks.  Just a remarkably golden sunset streaking the surface of the waters of the Sound.

Meanwhile, we had wandered onto the beach. We usually stay on the path for the duration of our walk, but neither of us was in a hurry to get home and face more stressful travel planning. Within minutes I noticed a  heap of very white sun- bleached bones lying askew at the high tide line. I called my daughter over to see; she is an amateur physical anthropolist and loves nothing more than an abandoned skull or skeleon or animal shell that she will make great efforts to identify.She was very pleased with my discovery; it turned out to be a bird synsacrum (pelvis and sacrum) and sternum.

Not long after, I found another much smaller bone artifact and again she identified it.  It turned out to be part of the skull of a sea robin, also a rare find.  This was turning out to be quite an adventure.  For the next half hour we combed the beach gathering all kinds of local shells: oyster, mussel, channel whelk, clam and numerous others.  She had discovered a couple of small pieces of sea sponge and was delighted since she had never encountered them on the local beaches.  By the end of our hour of beachcombing we had quite a treasure trove of found objects and had forgotten all about the anxieties that had driven us out of the house.

We drove home refreshed and very proud of ourselves. We will carefully pack our treasures in tissue and place them in a special box to bring to one of our landlocked relatives in Weimar, Central Germany. She is also a nature lover, her particular passion being fossils and stones.  Oddly enough, this is the “gift” I am most excited about bringing to Germany.  These are real treasures that are reminders of our life here by the sea, and soon they will become the treasures that will remind her of us, so far away.