Last Stop, Weimar : the Cultural Heart of Germany

My recent family visit to Germany during the Christmas holidays included stays in Berlin and Dresden and took us finally to Weimar, a small but historically and culturally significant city just a couple hours drive west of Dresden. Our plan was to spend the night visiting another cousin and revisiting some of the major cultural institutions there.  This was my second visit to Weimar and I was eager to return. I remembered it as feeling deeply historical, peaceful and full of treasures…like a small jewelbox.

As in Dresden, we were treated like royalty by our hosts.  My cousin presented us with an amazing dinner of stewed rabbit and, of course, the regional kloessekartofelen, or potato balls. After dinner and a brief exchange of small gifts, the women in our family were presented with gifts of gemstones particularly chosen for each of us by my cousin who is passionate about both finding them and having them converted into gorgeous pieces of jewelry.  I was gifted with a lovely pendant of larimar as well as a matching ring, both set in silver.  Larimar is a stone that can only be found in the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. From the Dominican Republic to Weimar to me.  Oh, the stories stones can tell.

Thanks to the highly unusual balmy weather (in the 50’s F.), we were able to spend the earlier part of the day leisurely strolling through the city stopping at several of its major cultural institutions some of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage site. Our first stop was the Herder Church, a Lutheran church originally constructed in 1245 and later rebuilt in the 1500’s, where Martin Luther often gave sermons.  Bach is said to have presented some of his most famous cantatas there, including a Christmas cantata, and to have played its magnificent organ on several occasions. A rather severe looking church from the exterior, inside it is surprisingly and remarkably splendid.  Most fascinating to me are an altar triptych of the crucifiction of Christ and a portrait of Goethe, both by Lucas Cranach, a close friend of Martin Luther, and both of which are still in remarkable condition.

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From there we strolled through the local park, our goal being to visit the Garden House of Goethe, perhaps Weimar’s most famous longterm resident.  Goethe, raised in a prosperous upper class family, arrived in the town at the tender age of seventeen, having been invited there by the young local monarch, Duke Karl August, who was inspired by Goethe’s intellectualism and spirit. They became lifelong friends. Schiller, a famous writer/philosopher moved to Weimar much later and he and Goethe became inseparable.

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The Garden House is where Goethe lived, surrounded by gardens and trees, and where he wrote many of his famous works including Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther.  His actual standing desk (yes, he was ahead of his time in his thinking about what was best for the health of the mind and the body) is still there as well as some of the cabinets that housed his collections of natural artifacts.  I was very touched by the simplicity of the dwelling; humble is the best word to describe it.

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Later that same day we visited the Dutchess Anna Amalia Library, originally the residence of Duchess Anna Amalia, built in the mid 1500’s. It was converted into a library housing her book collection in 1761. The library nearly burned down about a decade ago when a fire of unknown origin began on the top level.  The town citizens flew to the library and risked their own lives to rescue the irreplacable collection of books housed there including an original Martin Luther bible. I had just visited the library for the first time earlier that year, so I read abut the fire with great anxiety and was amazed at how book restorers from faraway places came to volunter their services to save what they could of the water and fire-damaged collection.

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To see the library today, you would never know anything so dramatic had taken place there.  The building is fully restored but some of the original collection was unsalvagable.  The library is most noteworthy in my opinion for the fact that local residents were invited to use the collection which was highly unusual in this era. Portraits of Goethe and Schiller grace the walls to remind us of the influence of these local luminaries whose spirit so dominated this town during their residency.

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Our final stop was…you guessed it…the Weinachmarkt in the central square of Weimar. One of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany, this one was particularly memorable for the Thuringian wursts, famous in the region, served on a roll drenched in mustard. And, of course, the perfect accompaniment to our wurst was the local gluhwein in which we gratefully indulged ourselves for the last time.

The next morning we arose to have brunch in the cafe housed in the pension where we had spent the night. As we were the only guests at the time, we had the whole cafe to ourselves to celebrate my 69th birthday during our leisurely brunch.
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The table was charmingly decorated in red for Christmas and the room was decked “with boughs of holly,” or something very similar.

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I was glowing in the warmth of the setting and the feelings being expressed to me by loved ones on this very special birthday which was also a celebration of being cancer-free for one year.

Though I wished we could stay longer in Weimar, we left after brunch heading back to Dresden to collect our belongings for our ultimate return to Berlin, where we spent our four final days in Germany. Those four days included an amazing New Year’s Eve celebration in a chic Viennese restaurant on the Spree River surrounded by fireworks with a view of what is the remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. I have so many memories of this trip that are still so vivid in my mind and that continue to resonate in my heart. The best outcome is that both my children have now bonded with the younger generation of cousins and friends there so I know that these intercontinental German-American connections will continue to grow and prosper long after I am gone. This makes me feel happy and deeply satisfied.

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Berlin: For Me, The Third Time’s the Charm

For the recent holidays my family and I took a two-week trip to Germany that included visiting with friends in Berlin and relatives in Dresden and Weimar. It was a once-in-lifetime adventure for all of us. Today I will share some photos and impressions of Berlin which I have now visited three times and grown to love.

Berlin is not an easy city to get to know. It is sprawling and public transportation, although readily available, involves long walks to stations and lots of stairs to climb to train platforms. Like New York, there are neighborhoods throughout Berlin that can be best be discovered by walking them. Most people are somewhat familiar with some of the more well-known monuments: The Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm (television tower) which you can see from practically anywhere in Berlin.

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Much as I enjoyed revisiting these amazing sites, this time I enjoyed even more just relaxing with our friends and hanging out with them in various neighborhoods. The area we stayed in is known as Freiderichshain; it was part of East Berlin before the wall came down. Notice the cobblestone streets and tile rooftops which are fairly common in East Berlin.

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Our friends’ apartment was brand new and designed by them to be a minipenthouse with a broad view of Berlin from the windows. Ahhh…the windows! I am in love with the windows that almost everyone has in Germany (and many other parts of Europe). This is their livingroom and a balcony just off their dining area:

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Spending time with our friends and their daughter’s new baby in their chic but cosy apartment was as much fun as sightseeing. I love the German baby clothing and the fact that all the children speak and understand German. Aren’t they clever? Here’s my son with Linus, the newest addition to the Berlin family.

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One night after a rigorous day of sightseeing, we ended up at a local favorite of our host, bei Schlawinchen, a real Berlin dive in trendy Kreuzberg that’s open 24 hours and is indescribably funky! Check out the ceiling below.

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Here’s my daughter and our friends’ daughter downing a pint of that good German beer at Schlawinchen!

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A night on the town is always topped off with a doner kebab, which is Germany’s equivalent of a souvlaki sandwich often bought and eaten on the street. It is Turkey’s greatest gift to Berlin!

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No visit to Berlin would be complete without a glimpse of The Wall. There’s almost nothing left of it. There is a good piece still intact on the Eastern side of the Spree River (which runs through Berlin). It has been turned into a colorful outdoor exhibit known as The East Side Gallery by graffiti artists.

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On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated in a cozy Austrian restaurant situated just across the river facing the Eastside Gallery. Also in view was the amazing Oberbaumbrucke, which I think is the most picturesque bridge in all of Berlin. The fireworks going off all around it were awesome!

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There’s so much more I could write and show you, but there’s one thing more that must be included…the Weinachsmarkts (Christmas markets), which is how I got the urge to go to Germany at Christmas! I wanted to see the markets for myself. We saw five of them! Two in Berlin, two in Dresden and one in Weimar. Each has its own distinct character and each one was equally enjoyable. The most enjoyable part was drinking gluhwein at frequent stops throughout the market. Delicious! Here’s my family and I enjoying our mugs of gluhwein.

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And last but not least, I found Santa Claus in Berlin. In fact, I found several Santa Clauses as we were leaving a local bar one night. They were merry and a bit younger than I thought Santa would be!

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Next stop…Dresden!

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.