Date: Monday, November 29, 1999 1:09 PMDoug McLean World Tour 1999-2000Back Home Next
Subject: Nov. 2-4, 1999: Dresden, Germany
Current Date/Location: November 29, 1999 still at home in Jarrell, Texas.
Current Itinerary: Leaving for South America later this week...probably Wed
November 2, 1999
I left the YoHo in Salzburg and hopped a train to Dresden, Germany. The train took most of the day and I arrived sometime around 7 or 8pm. I had been invited to visit Dresden by Kathleen who I had met in Prague in early October (remember...the girl I had bored to tears by discussing the Checks and Balances of the US Political System ...yeah...gets 'em every time...sh-right!). Kathleen is a Law student at the University of Dresden and had said that Dresden was worth a visit and that she would show me around and let me stay at her flat...an offer I couldn't resist!
Kathleen met me at the train station and we walked in the rain back to her flat (note...for this walk, I was glad to have my foot in a plastic bag...my shoe is still leaking, and I was happy to have my sweater from Sarajevo...it was a little nippy.). She lives with 3 other girls in a large student flat. Stayed up and talked for awhile and then crashed. Sounds silly, but sitting on a train all day will tend to wear you out.
November 3, 1999
Woke...had breakfast (cereal and a banana) and then we headed out to go see one of the castles outside Dresden. We took the train and visited the castle which was up on a mountain (hmmmm...I guess castle-builders prefer the high-ground...go figure). The castle had an impressive feature of a well that is something like 100m deep that was built in the 15th century...sounds boring...very impressive to see (it took them 6 years to dig). In the little town below the castle, I found a great bakery...and again over indulged in European sweets...but, note...I was NOT able to find German Chocolate Cake...hmmmm...I am not sure that it isn't an American creation...I never found it anywhere in Germany.
Kathleen is wonderful and really opened up and shared many parts of her culture and experience with me, which I appreciate greatly. She was raised in a town near-ish to Dresden. Now, while you may read this and not take note of much about these places...realize this...Dresden and her home town were part of East Germany. The Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989...a mere 10 years ago the gates to the West were opened up. Kathleen spent the better part of her life behind the Iron Curtain...in speaking with her over the next several days, I would never stop being amazed at small stories and examples she would give about life in East Germany...and for that matter...life as a German in a New Germany.
We started talking about shortages in East Germany...and did you know that one of the most rare items in East Germany were bananas???!!! They would only receive one or two per person PER YEAR in East Germany. The lowly banana, which we take for granted in the West, was truly a symbol of freedom and availability of products in the West...the Banana! When the Berlin Wall fell, many East Germans poured across the border...which is well known, but did you know that one of the first things they wanted to buy / purchase / consume in West Germany was a banana or an orange??? Vendors in Berlin in the days that followed the fall of the wall would often just give bananas or oranges to East Germans...saying "Welcome back" and in joy at the reunification. All that said, I had eaten a banana for breakfast and had not really thought about it...and in the new Germany, Kathleen had hardly thought about giving it to me...how quickly the world changes...consider your blessings...
Kathleen also shared that West Germany had made a magnanimous gesture of giving all East Germans a one-time amount of 100 German Marks per person...This was a huge gesture from the government of West Germany to the East German people! Kathleen said that with the 100 Marks, she was able to afford to buy her first radio...she would have been about 13 and getting her first radio. From Kathleen and later during my days in Germany, I am astounded at the way the people and government of West Germany embraced the East Germans...I heard of gesture after gesture of goodwill and generosity during those times. Now, that is not to say that there aren't problems in the reunification...the differences that can build-up between two countries and peoples who are separated since WWII are huge...but times are changing...and there is a palatable energy and desire for re-growth that permeates all of Germany.
NOTE: The Following Story is probably one of my most cherished moments of my entire trip...
The story that had the greatest affect on me was the story that Kathleen told me about her grandfather. He had been a soldier in WWII in the German army...anyway, he had been captured at one point and was sent to a POW camp in Georgia and Florida. As a POW, they worked as organized labor picking peaches. She said that when she was a child, he would relay stories about how well the POWs were treated in the USA. They were adequately fed, clothed, and housed...were required to do labor but were paid with very meager wages as compensation and allowed to eat all the peaches they wanted. In addition to these things...they were able to send mail back home to let their families know they were safe and to keep correspondence with their loved ones. I was riveted when Kathleen related that her grandfather had once been trying to buy something in a store in the USA and was a little short of the cash to purchase the item...a black man next to him at the counter paid the balance of the amount. Her grandfather had said that he was amazed at this gesture because the black man knew he was both a POW and a German...but still paid the small balance of his purchase and told her grandfather not to worry about it...quite an act of humanity and compassion that touched not only a German POW, but his granddaughter, and a traveling Texan.
This is in stark contrast to how POWs were known to be treated in Russia...many of the POWs in Russian camps were treated badly or never heard from again. Now, I understand that the Nazi war machine certainly was not friendly to prisoners...and I am not saying that the Russians didn't have their reasons for being harsh (the Americans certainly would have had reasons for being harsh)...but, the German people know how the Americans treated their POWs versus how the Russians treated their POWs...these things are not easily forgotten (note...same thing could be said about Jews and Germans...but I am not trying to open that can of worms right now.)...I think there are some lessons to be learned here...
Often, we are fighting ideology more than individuals. While sometimes use of force is necessary, it is also true that often Force of Example can win battles as well. I have often thought that prisoners (of war and of crime) should be locked away and the key be thrown away...Texas and Texans are often known for having some pretty hard-line opinions on punishment...but I may be changing my opinion. It is easy to treat our friends well, but, I guess how we treat our enemies is probably a greater testament to our humanity. Gestures of compassion often have a way of affecting not only the beneficiary of that compassion, but I have experienced that they have a ripple effect...often affecting many more people than originally intended...I guess I will need to think about this topic in greater detail...
Special Note: There was a depth and richness in talking to Kathleen that I have rarely experienced with anyone. She was willing to discuss very personal topics which many in her position would consider taboo...Nazis, life in East Germany, present day Germany, problems with reunification, personal recollections of her life and grandfather, personal fears and hopes and much more. I am indebted to Kathleen for giving me a much better understanding of her part of the world, whose history is VERY different from my own. By relating some of her stories and experiences I hope to share with my friends and family some of the gifts that she has bestowed on me through our talks...I owe her a debt of gratitude that I shall never be able to repay. Thank you Kathleen.
Anyway, we walked around Dresden at night when we returned. It is a nice city...we went to a cool bar that had deep sand as a floor...quite interesting. I ordered an apple dessert, and some sort of cinnamon-apple pizza-thing showed up...I ate it and found it to be wonderful. We visited Tanja (one of Kathleen's roommates) at the bar/restaurant where she worked...and called it a night.
November 4, 1999
Got up to see the beautiful sights of Dresden, Germany. Kathleen's flat is on one of the top stories of a large apartment building that overlooks Dresden. Specifically, below the apartment building is a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church with Blue and Gold spires that you always associate with Russian architecture...a reminder of the Russian influence of days past.
We headed out and checked out the town. Dresden is like many towns in Europe...it is situated on a river. During WWII, Dresden was heavily bombed in Feb. 1945...many people were killed and a huge number of buildings in the town were destroyed. Dresden is still rebuilding many of it's churches and historic buildings from the bombings in 1945...it takes a long time to recover. There is one large, old tower in town that must have been from before the bombings...I commented to Kathleen that it was amazing that the tower survived the bombings...it certainly sticks out...hard to miss. She said she was glad it had been missed (and so am I)...but agreed that it would be a big target. All day, when we would see the tower one of us would comment..."hmmmm...how could they miss that??!!"...it was an amusing joke about a not very amusing subject.
In the 18th Century, Dresden had been called "The Florence of the North" due to it's favor among Italian artists and craftsmen who flocked there during the reign of Augustus the Strong and Augustus III between 1693 and 1763 (Info courtesy of Lonely Planet). But this influx of artists did have an effect on the city that can be seen (even after the bombings). We saw the "Procession of Princes" which is a HUGE 102 meter long porcelain mural (note...it is not a fresco due to the lack of painting on wet plaster with an egg based tempura paint...hmmmm...I guess I CAN learn!). It is nevertheless...very impressive...it shows the procession of rulers over Saxony...very cool.
We then visited the Old Masters Gallery. It has more paintings by Italian artists...and lots of others for that matter...but the star attraction is Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Hmmm...what??? Never heard of it?? OK...know the picture of the two little cherubs with wings resting on their elbows looking up...OK...that is it! But, what most people don't know is it is a bigger picture which shows the Madonna standing holding the baby Jesus and the cherubs are below them...looking up...it is a great painting. I had thought it was somewhere in Italy...there are t-shirts of these little cherubs all over Italy...but NO, it is in Dresden! I can see how this would be one of the great works of art...it is amazing...I would add it to my list of favorite masterpieces (among which are American Gothic (pitchfork guy and wife) in the Art Institute of Chicago, Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Firenze, The David in Firenze, an incredible Flemish painting in the Prado in Madrid (title and artist unknown), and a painting of a fighting Swan by Van Gogh in Amsterdam).
We were fortunate enough to be blessed with an incredibly bright sunny (but cool) day which turned into a lovely sunset...and it was even clear enough that several hot-air balloons lifted off from the banks of the river for the sunset...I got a stunning picture of one of the balloons...it was a great way to remember Dresden...tomorrow we would leave for Berlin.