Monday, July 16, 2012

Tom here for Monday, July 16:

Yesterday was supposed to be our final blog, but today's events changed that. We took our shuttle to the Munich airport and made our flight to London's Heathrow, but when we landed at Heathrow, another plane was parked at our gate. Mind you, Mary and I had one hour between arriving in London and departing to Chicago. We sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes--basically our plane to Chicago was boarding as we deplaned. All was not lost--we still had 40 minutes to make our connection.

But that would be too easy for Heathrow. If you recall our first blog, I mentioned that this airport was a SUBAR (a more unsanitized version of this term didn't make it past editor Mary). Heathrow's gates are miles apart, and to make matters even more hairy (a little British lingo there), they require another security screening even for connecting flights. They had two security stations open, we had only carry-ons, and things slowed to a snail's pace.

After making it through security, we made a dash for the gate (here a "dash" refers to pulling a small suitcase and wearing a heavy backpack through the winding hallways behind people who are not in a hurry to make their next flight.) In case you haven't guessed by now, we missed our flight to Chicago. The plane had closed its doors but then sat at the gate for several minutes because of mechanical problems; still, regulations would not allow the doors to be opened.

Have I mentioned that I detest Heathrow? I think the British had an easier time conquering India than it does now running an airport.

Anyhow, I refused to stay in that God-forsaken airport any longer than I had to, so we got a flight to Dulles International (the last two seats available), but our connecting flights to Chicago and Omaha do not depart until Tuesday morning. Mary and I decided to spend the night in Dulles, and so here I sit at midnight typing what will hopefully the last blog entry. My watch is still on Munich time, so we are nearing the 24 hour mark with six hours to go until our Chicago flight.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tom here for Sunday, July 15:

Since we arrived too late yesterday to do any real sight-seeing in Munich, we ate at a quaint and proto-typical neighborhood German restaurant. Mary got her sauerkraut, and I my got boiled potatoes with the recommended smoked raw ham. Yes, apparently when they say raw ham, they mean raw. Oy vey!  My palate couldn't quite handle the unusual texture, so I schemed one of Mary's sausages instead. Nature's balance was restored.

Sunday morning in Munich is quite like Sunday morning in the states (that's you guys, btw): everything closes down, and it's time for church and your Sunday best. I think Mary and I were the only people in shorts on our first stop: The Residenz. This palace was the home of the royal Wittelsbach family. I'm a little rusty on my Holy Roman Empire history, so suffice it to say that this was a wealthy and powerful family. We toured over 90 of its rooms, and I think half of today's 19,000 steps was in this one building. It was regal and it was opulent--two characteristics that I don't associate with American egalitarianism. Be that as it may, it was a beautiful residence we toured.

                                                Tom listening to the audio tour in Residenz

And then the rain came. And then it left. And then it came back again. We sought refuge in a stoop of St. Peter's Church--the oldest church in Munich decorated in the Gothic style.

                                                                   St. Peter's Church

 After a quick look around and once the rain let up, we walked a few feet to Marienplatz, where a gay rights concert was being held. It was a large gathering of people, some there for the message, some there for the sausages and beer, and some were there to people watch.

                                                                      At the Concert

About two blocks from there was the Frauenkirche--another Gothic cathedral that was home to Pope Benedict XVI in the early 1980s before being reassigned to the Vatican. This church was not as ornate as St. Peter's Church, but it had just as much splendor as the aisle and altar stretched to the sky.

                                                        Stained glass at the Frauenkirche

 One block away (and they sure looker farther apart on the map), was the Jesuit's St. Michael's Church. Of course this church holds a little more significance to Mary and me as we teach in a Jesuit school.  This is also a beautiful church, but one built in the Renaissance style and modeled after the Jesuits' Jesu church in Rome. All three of these churches were breath-taking in their own way.

                                            Mary lighting a candle for the souls in Purgatory

Since we had spent three hours in the Residenz alone, our brief afternoon time could not be stretched to accommodate all the sites we had hoped to see--which is unfortunate considering the great sites Munich has to offer.

This is Mary speaking for both Tom (with his permission) and myself- we are grateful, humbled, awed and better people for the opportunity this journey has offered. We have met many people who have reaffirmed the inherent goodness of humankind. People, who without hesitation, rose to help another "lost" soul, and who offered a smile, a nod, and pointed when  language was a barrier. We hope to "pay it forward" through our students, our continued communication with friends we have made along the way, and through collaboration in lesson plans for AP and other teachers. We leave tomorrow morning and will arrive back home around 10pm.

Thank you Fund For Teachers- you have our heartfelt gratitude for believing in the importance and influence of teachers.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Soggy Mary here for Saturday July 13:

I can't believe that I had to break down and buy an umbrella-I even had my jacket but the skies opened and poured on us. Noah style. No matter.

We began the day by returning to Brandenburg Gate (1791)- the last of 14 gates in Berlin's old city wall. We walked on plaques that indicated where the wall once stood. We also found the Memorial to the Victims of the Wall. These are people who were killed for their attempt to secure freedom. It is "underwhelming" in a city of overwhelming memorials- perhaps this is why it is so powerful.

We strolled around the Reichstag and visited the Memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler. Another small but poignant memorial. Each of these tiles has several names engraved to memorialize the bravery of those who challenged the rise of Nazism.

                                               Memorial to the politicians who Opposed Hitler

Yesterday we could not find the ghost subway stations- those Western lines that looped through the East and were therefore blocked during the Cold War. When the wall came tumbling down the stations were reopened and the blockades removed. Although the cobwebs and furry animals have been removed no other "updates" have been implemented. They are indeed a step back into the 1950's insofar as the design and overall aura. We accidentally decided to take a certain line and voila!, we found it. Ok, Tom "technically" found it. In fact we almost took another line but for some reason, turned in this direction.

We slowly swam our way to the Wall Documentation Center- it is an outside walk that marks not only the outer wall but an inner wall that acted as yet another buffer to those wanting to escape. Sadly a cemetery was in the middle of the wall and many people were not allowed to visit their loved ones' graves. A church also fell victim to the harsh demarcation of freedom and tyranny. A chapel stands in its place today.

                                  Part of the Wall that has been saved as a permanent reminder

Finally, we had to lighten our moods and what better way to accomplish that than lots of chocolate? Fassbender und Rausch is Europe's biggest chocolate store. I was like a kid in a candy store-literally. I went from counter to counter just pointing. Their solid chocolate models of Berlin's landmarks are truly artistic (I had to force myself NOT to break off the tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the dome of the Reichstag or the hand of the biggest chocolate bear I have ever seen!)

Last but not least I have a trivia question for those of you reading this blog.  The following building was most recently in the news (ok, recently meaning in the last 10 years) for : ???

Hint: Look at the second floor, last balcony on the right...

Tomorrow we board a train for Munich-the last stop of this incredible odyssey.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tom here for Thursday, July 12:

On Wednesday morning, Mary and I toured the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFERL broadcasts news into over twenty countries who do not have a free press, most of which are either in the Balkans or the Middle East. While this broadcaster's history stretches back to WWII to balance Nazi propaganda, RFERL's mission during the Cold War was to do much the same thing from its base in Munich: counter Soviet propaganda. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, Congress considered closing the book on RFERL's storied history (think $), but Czechoslovakia offered to host the network free of charge.

                                                  Tom and Mary at Radio Free Europe

While it was interesting to see the new broadcast center (the hi-tech, hi-security building opened in 2009), our tour guide gave us the sort of information that Mary and I have been looking for this whole trip: a personal story of survival behind the Iron Curtain. While I won't go into details here, suffice it to say that we left the building with a deeper and more personal understanding of the Cold War's harmful effects on its people.

Our afternoon train to Berlin took us through some beautiful countryside vistas, and with our relatively late arrival, we only had time for a quick dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant before retiring for the day.

Our scheduled two days in Berlin allowed us to take a more leisurely tour of Berlin's Holocaust and Cold War sites: Brandenburg Gate,

                                   Tom and Fraulein Minni in front of the Brandenburg Gate

Bebelplatz, two museums, Checkpoint Charlie, and finally the Topography of Terrors.

Mary at the Wall just beyond the Topography of Terrors

 Just a few comments: Bebelplatz was the sight of a large book burning rally in 1933; over 20,000 Jewish and "anti-German" books were torched by the Hitler Youth. The Topography of Terrors is a museum that charters the rise of the Nazi Party and documents the atrocities committed by the SS and Gestapo. Seeing this Nazi brutality again is wearing on us, but we think it's important to be witnesses for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

 We concluded our day at the Sony Center with dinner at an Australian restaurant. Our waiter happened to be a former army brat who has lived in both the US and Germany. We asked him which language has the better swear words.  He replied that German does, but  he politely refused to offer any examples when we asked. Mary will have to do some of her own research now. :-)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

   Mary reporting, Comrade!  Sorry, after visiting the KGB and Communist Museums I am a little indoctrinated towards discipline. Let me back up a little:

We arrived in Prague yesterday afternoon around 5:30. We made it to our hotel in record time and we were feeling rather "European" by then. We had a little time to scout out the city so we bought a Metro ticket and took the tram to the Little Quarter and explored the Prague Castle, the gardens and market. While we were looking for a place to eat dinner, Tom spotted Susan Sarandon at the corner Bistro. I didn't believe him so I doubled back and sure enough it was her! I did not want to interrupt her, so I tried to take a picture without her noticing. Not going to happen- her radar was up in a flash and we made eye contact. I lowered my camera and kept walking. I think she noticed me when I was walking backwards trying to video the "street"-- well I did get a lot of concrete and one very quick shot of her,  but then felt bad so we left her alone and continued on our way.

By 8 the next morning we were armed with maps, Kronos (Czech currency) and charged camera batteries. The first stop was the monument to the Victims of the Communism. From the street I didn't notice how the figures faded progressively. The first had its full body- by the last it was only a leg. We paused to gain our equilibrium.

Our next stop was the KGB Museum- but a side note: It has rained every day since we walked off the plane in Warsaw. Not continually- just in spurts and at the most random times. Sometimes it is sunny with no clouds and yet it rains.  I packed my rain jacket but every day I throw it out of my backpack as I don't want to carry it and the morning is bright and the sky clear. I have been rained on every day. It was raining as we walked to the KGB Museum-That is my excuse as to why I look like something the cat dragged in.  

A Russian Proprietor welcomed us into the KGB Museum. We had his full attention for one hour. He gave Tom an AK-47 and insisted he pose. 
There were many items I had heard about in movies but never believed existed. A few:  Secret cameras, cyanide capsules with an antidote, field night glasses, a weapon that was a knife, hatchet, shovel, wire cutters and saw all in one. We saw Lenin's private bedroom articles and posters, propaganda and photographs. I left feeling a tad off center.

St. Nicholas Church was next (we passed the American Embassy and swelled with pride as the flag swayed in the breeze). It is the only Jesuit Church in Prague. 

                                            St. Mary's Basilica and John Lennon's Wall were next.  It was raining.     

John Lennon's Wall is a place for people to voice their thoughts and opposition to the Communist government. The government couldn't stop it and it became an icon of the youth freedom movement. I videoed an artist singing and playing his guitar in tribute to John Lennon. 

One of our last stops was the Museum of Communism- we stayed for over two hours and my camera ran out of battery! It was a treasure trove of Communist thinking, philosophy and lifestyle.There were many propaganda posters that my students will analyze for their persuasive Aristitotelean characteristics and visual effects. 

We walked 27,838 steps today. Enough said.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tom here for Vienna, July 8:

First of all, I love Vienna. It's a beautiful city with very friendly people. This city really knows how to treat and handle tourists. They are proud of their heritage, and it shows.

Our first stop was the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer cabin of the royal family. Wow! The palace was decorated primarily by Maria Theresa, who later ruled the Austrian Empire after her husband's death. Mary and I took an audio tour that took us through 45 rooms. One of its rooms was the Great Gallery; this was the setting of a summit meeting between President Kennedy and General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. The failure here to reach a settlement on the flow of East Germans to West Berlin and then to West Germany, prodded Khrushchev to give permission to the East Germans to build the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1961. The palace grounds were just as beautiful as the palace itself; it even includes the oldest zoo in the world.

                                                                  Palace Gardens

                                                           Schonbrunn Schloss (Palace)

The squeamish part of the day was our visit to the Foltermuseum. For the non-German-speaking people reading this, "Folter" means torture. Yes, we visited a museum of torture. When in Rome ... . It was a small museum of reenactments, demonstrating how certain methods of torture and execution were administered. The museum stated that its purpose was not to glorify these forms of capital and corporal punishment, but to warn its visitors of such methods being used today. Mary intends to use this material in her British Literature class, but between you and me, I think she wants to develop more creative threats for her miscreant students.

From there we toured Wolfgang Mozart's apartment (Mozarthaus) located just a few blocks from St. Stephen's Cathedral that Mary mentioned yesterday. The whole building has been converted into a museum: one floor dedicated to the history of Vienna, another dedicated to Mozart's music, and the last floor was his actual 7-room apartment where he and his family lived from 1784 to 1787 (he died in 1791 recalling Falco's Amadeus.) Mary and I left here with a greater understanding that this wunderkind was human: he had the same struggles (gaining employment), weaknesses (gambling), and self-doubt (bad reviews for The Marriage of Figaro) that most of us experience.

We concluded our long day looking for some magnificent gardens that a hotel waiter suggested we see. What we found instead was an amusement park (Prater). It seemed like a county fair setting with major thrill rides but no smash-up derbies. We were somewhat shocked to find several casinos in this family-friendly atmosphere, but I guess even adults need a place to play sometimes.

                                                                  Riesenrad (Ferris Wheel)

Tomorrow we'll take an afternoon train to Prague.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tom here for Friday, July 6:

Up at 5:30 am to take 90 km bus ride to Auschwitz. The 18-seat bus was nothing more than a large minivan (unconditioned, of course), which made the trip exhausting. Mary an I took an unguided tour of the concentration camp. The tour was easy to follow as most descriptions and summaries were in several languages. While many of the exhibits are comparable to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, witnessing the setting first-hand was truly moving experience. Mary and I left Auschwitz disbelieving the cruelty human beings can show one another.
                                             Gate to entrance of Auschwitz: Work sets you Free

After returning to Krakow, we visited the Krakow Archdiocesan Museum, which was the bishopric of John Paul II before he ascended to the papacy. After paying 5 PLN to enter the small museum, we had to pay an extra 5 PLN to take pictures; Mary and I got our money's worth by taking a picture of almost every exhibit there. Most of the exhibits, btw, were either JPII's clothing/vestments, or gifts he received from around the world.

                                                 Pope John Paul II's embroidered handkerchief

We wrapped up our visit to Krakow by visiting the city's Stare Miasto. Their old town is a very quaint and welcoming location, with its narrow streets, many restaurants and shops, as well as street performers. One interesting sight to mention was the Cloth Hall, a gathering of tiny kiosks where the shopkeepers tried to sell their furs, woodwork, glasswork, ceramics, and knick-knacks.

                                                       Tom in front of Center Old Town Monument

A night train at 10 pm took us to Vienna.

Mary here for Vienna from night train: July 6th-7th:

OK, now I love trains-especially when I get to sit in the engine and "woo-woo" the horn. Sadly, I did not get to do that. But I did get to hear every announcement at every stop with the public address first speaking in Polish then seamlessly switching to German around 3 am. Sleep?  It's highly overrated. Our conductor who welcomed us onto the train in Polish, wished us well as we left, in German. Who says Americans aren't multi-cultural?

We arrived at the Vienna station at 6:10 am. Neither of us had any Euros and of course nothing was open on a Saturday morning. We walked. And walked. And walked. By 7:45 we arrived not so fresh at our hotel, whose receptionist  in an authentically sincere German accent said we could not check in until 3. Undaunted we cheerfully went on to explore Vienna.

We walked until we realized what a phenomenal transportation system Vienna offered. Who cares that we boarded the wrong tram going the wrong way? Eventually we made it to the Vienna Museum and Karlskirche. We also sought out the Monument Against War and Fascism.
                                               Based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Although exhausted, we went to the top of Stephensdom's spires. Tom took pictures to prove it. In fact, here is one!
    You can't even see the death grip I have on the flimsy wire mesh that keeps me from plunging thousands of feet onto a poor unsuspecting horse below. As fate is an ally of nature, the horses lived. Unfortunately the Boys Choir are on "holiday" during the month of July.

To end the day we ate at a Mexican restaurant. Thus far we have enjoyed Polish, Italian, German, and Mexican fare. Oh, I almost forgot, the warmed Apple Strudel with ice cream and real whipped cream was delicious! I highly recommend it.