Most folks have heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and could probably even identify a picture of it without much effort. I mean, it’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa, how could you not? BUT have you ever heard of the Leaning Church-Tower of Suurhusen? Didn’t think so.
I had never heard of Suurhusen, a tiny German town of 1200 people, before arriving. Although we only spent about fifteen minutes there, Suurhusen managed to impress me. Why? The oddity of an world-record-winning bell tower that seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse.
Apparently, when Suurhusen’s church was constructed at its swampy location in Northern Germany, around 1450, oak tree-trunks were used as piles in the foundation. This was effective for a few hundred years because the beams were immersed in a preserving groundwater. However, when the area was drained in the 19th century, the piles rotted and the church began to bend, warp and twist. The bell tower began to lean.
The tower leaned, leaned and leaned some more over the next few decades until it finally attracted the attention of the Guinness World Record folks, who granted Suurhusen the title for the highest (unintentional) tilted building on earth. Suurhusen’s bell tower beats the Leaning Tower of Pisa by almost 1.22 degrees. Impressive!
As we strolled around the building for a few minutes, evidence of decades of desperate, makeshift repairs peppered the walls. New lines of bricks laced the walls, arches previously holding windows were unevenly bricked up and wedges had been forced into the structure in numerous places in an effort to stem the warping. As I stared down the walls, my mind struggled to make sense of the impossible collection of angles, curves and bows. The tombstones in the adjoining graveyard accentuated the chaos of the church by standing straight and stiff as soldiers on parade. The church and bell tower tricked my brain into believing I was gazing at an optical illusion of some kind, a visual trick that needed to be seen from a different perspective to see the real picture. The problem was that, everywhere I looked, a new curve stymied my senses!
I think the reason I enjoyed Suurhusen so much was that I find something appealing about buildings in the midst of decay. Shiny, well maintained structures may be nice, but I rarely find them to be beautiful. Suurhusen’s church was warped, bended, broken and crumbling and that’s why I found it so charming. The quirky world-record shtick was just a bonus!
As a child, I was infatuated with the Second World War. I devoured every encyclopedia article I could find in our 1988 World Book set. I flipped through history books, watched documentaries and scoured the Internet in search of war-knowledge. I could rattle off casualty statistics and share obscure facts with confidence. If I could travel into my past and test my 12 year-old-self about any battle in the war, from Tobruk to Midway, Arnhem to Okinawa, Kursk to Montevideo, I have no doubt I would amaze myself with the minutiae I once knew. I was one of those kids. You know, the boys who nerd out in their (possibly unhealthy) enthusiasm for historical bloodshed; the ones who everyone just barely manages to tolerate!
One of the only aspects of World War II that managed to curb my youthful eagerness and drop a queasy weight into my stomach was the Holocaust. I remember feeling physically sick after finding a picture during a sixth grade research project of skeletal prisoners stacked like firewood with hollow stares and gaping mouths. I struggled to grasp how anyone could bear to inflict such pain on others. I couldn’t arrive at a good answer.
Years later, the Holocaust is still one of the areas of history that simultaneously fascinates and horrifies me. The methodical approach to mass slaughter taken by the Nazi regime serves both as a stark reminder of what even the “civilized” nations of the world are capable of and warns of the need for our vigilance in the future. It happened once. It could happen again. That scares me, and I think that’s a good thing.
One of the first stops on our European road trip was Munich and Patrick, my brother-in-law who shares an interest in history, arranged a visit to Dachau, a famous concentration camp a few kilometers north of the city. We dropped of our spouses and the children at LEGOLAND (because, you know, concentration camps are probably not a great place to bring toddlers) and set our course on the GPS for the Dachau Memorial Concentration Camp Site.
Shall I provide some historical context before delving into my experience there? Okay!
Dachau was the first concentration camp set up by the Nazis. It was founded on March 22 in 1933, just weeks after Hitler’s meteoric rise to power culminated in his appointment to Chancellor. Dachau was originally designed to house and “re-educate” political opponents of the Nazi regime through labour and slightly more…active efforts. After Hitler solidified his political position and plunged the globe into the Second World War, Dachau’s role morphed into a transit centre and hard labour camp for thousands of Jews, Roma, POW’s and other groups targeted by Hitler and his band of A-holes. It was not an extermination camp. The primary goal of Dachau was to use prisoners as free labour for the war effort, but many prisoners who became too weak to work were transferred to the infamous death camps in Poland. As it was the first concentration camp, Dachau became the prototype and model for the entire system constructed by the Nazis. By the end of the war, approximately 200,000 prisoners had passed through Dachau and around 40,000 had died there. Some of the dead were worked to death, others were killed in grotesque medical experiments, others were simply shot or beaten to death by sadistic SS guards.
Dachau is now one of the more famous concentration camps largely because its liberation was so widely publicized by journalists and photographers at the time. It is also prominently featured pop-culture via the TV show Band of Brothers, the popular novel The Book Thief and multiple films, including Shutter Island which stars the oh-so-dreamy DiCaprio.
I had no idea what I’d find in Dachau as we hurled northwards on the autobahn towards the camp. I hadn’t done any prior research and was clueless. As usual.
As we parked and walked the footpaths to the gate, the first thing that struck me was just how close the camp was to the town. For some reason, I had always envisioned concentration camps as being cloistered away from the prying eyes of civilians in an effort to hide the atrocities perpetrated there. Well, Dachau Concentration Camp was aptly named because it is pretty much inside the town of Dachau! Maybe that shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I now understand and empathize with the impulsive decision by American soldiers to force local civilians to tour the camp at gunpoint after it was liberated.
We passed through one of the infamous black “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates and into the camp itself. I was impressed with how large it was; although most of the former buildings were razed, the foundations of the barracks stretched on for what seemed like over a kilometer. The rows of long, linear foundations were so perfectly straight, so perfectly aligned that it underscored just how premeditated and methodical the Holocaust really was. It required detailed planning and preparation. It wasn’t a passionate, violent loss of control. It was chillingly thorough and detailed. Engineers, bookkeepers, concrete-manufacturers, chemists, accountants, railway technicians and architects, all seemingly average, plain (or vanilla-tapioca as I like to call them) people, were willing to dedicate their time and expertise to the oppression and slaughter of millions. Wow. Instills a faith in the goodness of humanity huh?
We roamed the site for a few hours before arriving at the unmistakable chimney of the crematorium. This site was the smallest part of the concentration camp but it packed an emotional punch to the throat! As we slowly walked from room to room, it was sobering to recognize the site of the famous pictures from liberation. We passed the storage rooms where emaciated corpses were piled, stepped into the dim gas-chambers disguised as showers and paused by ovens that had burned tens of thousands of people to ash. Describing the cocktail of emotion that I felt while gazing into those crude brick holes is best saved for professional writers. I can’t even pinpoint it myself! It was one of those experiences that I’ll be mulling over in my mind for a long time, just trying to gauge what I actually felt at the time and sort through what I may have learned.
Visiting the Dachau Memorial Concentration Camp Site was a highlight of my trip to Europe not because it was enjoyable or entertaining, but because it was important for us to visit. I guess my final thoughts are owed to Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and literary hero of mine who, coincidentally, passed away the day before Pat and I visited. He claimed that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Dachau is one part of my trip to Europe that I will never forget.
As most of you already know, I work as a teacher of English and literature. This July led to the culmination of an “Englishy” dream I’ve had since tenth grade literature class: to see a Shakespeare play in the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.
As part of the celebration of our fifth anniversary a few weeks back, Danielle and I planned a brief trip to London. We hopped on a Ryanair flight to Stansted Airport and headed into the city for four packed days of exploration. I looked forward to the iconic sights of Westminster, The London Eye, Big Ben, Camden Lock Market and Tower Bridge just to name a few, but for me, the inevitable high-point was watching a play in the reconstructed Globe Theatre (or as I like to call it in class: The Bard’s Lair…it just sounds a bit more interesting).
I had to make a tough choice between two very different performances: Macbeth or The Taming of the Shrew. I tend to enjoy darker, existential themes about our inescapable mortality and the moral corruptibility of the human race (aren’t I a cheery guy) so the choice was fairly easy…but I could only purchase “groundling” tickets for the show, which meant standing bum to bum for three hours with 700 strangers fully exposed to the elements. With a pregnant wife.
Danielle is always game for whatever surprises I throw her way. In fact, she presciently suggested the groundling tickets even before I learned that they were all that was left. She quickly agreed to my proposal, possibly because there was a Starbucks across the street, and we were set!
We started our experience of standing through a performance in the Globe Theatre in the only way that made sense: by walking for around twenty kilometers. Before showing up at the theatre, we spent the day walking from Brick Lane to Parliament to Southwark. The inclusion of this detail is really a piece of foreshadowing; it will become highly important around the second hour of the performance.
As we toured the grounds earlier in the day, we began mentally conditioning ourselves to be crammed into the yard with hundreds of other people craning their necks and shifting positions to get the best view and blocking ours in the process. We had numerous minor concerns, not least among them how we (and everyone else) were going to hold in our flatulence for three straight hours. There was also the possibility of rain. Or unbearable sun. Or relentless hosts of pigeons.
We arrived around 45 minutes before the performance with the hope of finding a place to plant ourselves that minimized our concerns. After grabbing a beer, because it wouldn’t be authentic Shakespeare without a bit of alcohol involved, we found the perfect spot against a wall with a clear view of the stage. It would shelter us slightly from the potential vagaries of rain, sun and pigeons while providing a place to lean against, stretch out, and scratch our backs on the rough wood. As the play began and the witches sang, danced and crawled their way across the stage, I barely noticed my feet. I was in the Globe watching a Shakespeare performance! No aches or pains would be hindering my experience!
The purpose of sharing this isn’t really to review the Globe Theatre Company’s performance of Macbeth. They changed the gender of a few characters and modified the witches’ role, which I would have preferred to remain more like the original, but who am I to judge? One part of the performance that I particularly enjoyed was how the actors involved the audience. I must confess, I yelled “Hail Macbeth” with probably a little too much enthusiasm. I also probably would have teared up during the moving rendition of the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy had someone’s phone not gone off. Twice! Jerk.
Anyhow, by Act 3, the part of the Globe Theatre experience that dominated my attention with authoritarian severity was my feet. They screamed and protested so much I was concerned that other people might shush them. I shuffled. I stomped. I stood on one foot and then the other. I leaned back on the wall and then leaned forward so far I could smell the Head and Shoulders shampoo on the person in front of me. I seriously contemplated breaking house rules and plopping but buttocks on the ground just to give my complaining tootsies a bit of a break. I am ashamed to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when the intermission began. With a sigh, I dropped to the ground, de-shoed myself and basked in the simple glory of not standing.
As our fellow groundlings filed out of the yard, I had an epiphany moment: we had the advantage of attending a play that coincided with the Euro Cup Final. I quickly realized that many of our fellow groundlings were permanently fleeing in search of a television screen, which left significantly more room for our legs, feet, backs and bodies in general. Hallelujah! My feet still complained as the actors returned to the stage, but I had a new secret weapon: more room!
The final acts of Macbeth were much more enjoyable because I could move around, stretch my shoulders, and pass wind without fear of reprisals. As the cast took their bows, my feet finally gave in. Dani and I collapsed for almost 30 minutes on a bench outside along the Thames as we discussed the play, drank some water and wiggled the cramps out of our toes.
I am happy to have experienced a Shakespeare play as a “groundling.” There was something inimitable and timeless about watching Macbeth in similar fashion to most of Shakespeare’s sixteenth and seventeenth century audience members. As I watched Macbeth’s downfall on the stage while standing in the yard of The Globe, I wasn’t just entertained; I felt like I was part of something eternal. My feet felt like they would be in pain eternally as well.
Standing in the Globe Theatre yard for Macbeth was an enriching experience that was the highlight of our short visit to London. BUT, next time I’m in England, I’ll be booking a wooden seat. And paying a few extra pounds for a cushion!
I spent 250 dollars on Christmas ornaments during my trip to Germany this summer. I thought I would take the time to explain why, possibly as a way of assuaging my fiscal guilt by justifying my purchases and partially because I wanted to share a relatively newfound love of Christmas ornaments. You can be the judge of my true motivations at the end.
Prior to moving overseas, I was what many people would label a Christmas “Grinch in Training”. I mean, sure, I enjoyed spending time with friends and family, the gut-ballooning smorgasbord of food (especially the COOKIES…nomnomnomnom), and the exchange of gifts but I was genuinely mystified by people who spent hours of their time decking out their houses with garland, lights, ornaments, nutcrackers and whatever else people use to decorate their houses with. I just couldn’t understand how the time, money and the stress of it all was worthwhile.
Then we moved to Bangladesh.
South Asia may seem like an odd place to kindle a fiery love of Christmas. Bangladesh is a Muslim nation and most people there view it as a religious holiday and avoid celebrating it like the plague. We weren’t even allowed to officially call our two-week holiday “Christmas Break” in our workplace. As we travelled through Sri Lanka for two weeks, we attempted to ignore the fact that it was Christmas by busying ourselves and trying to forget all that we were missing back home. We even drove for six hours on Christmas Day in a misguided effort to soften the ache of our first Christmas away from our home and family. To cap it all off, we received word that Sherpa, our beloved cat in Bangladesh, died that morning. All in all, it was pretty miserable as far as Christmases go.
BUT, before you start wailing in pity for our awful Christmas, all is not doom and gloom! When it came to Christmas, I didn’t really realize what I had until it was gone. As a result of those lonely weeks in Asia, I realized how much I actually love the Christmas spirit, impractical junk and all. Now, decorating trees, untangling lights and unpacking nutcrackers holds a new appeal…and this has transferred to my souvenir tastes as we travel.
Which brings me back to Europe.
Germany is the world capital of Christmas. I’m frankly surprised that Santa chose to reside in the North Pole when he had Bavaria as a second option. I mean, why would you force uncountable numbers of elves into indentured labour when the Germans freely choose to continue making Christmas stuff by hand anyway? The Claus Corporation could possibly make a killing by outsourcing to Europe, free the elves and avoid the chance of being eaten polar bears while they’re at it! It would be a win for everyone!
Anyhow…the annual Christmas markets in Germany are world-famous and, luckily for me, just because I visited during summertime didn’t translate into missed opportunities to participate in a bit of holiday fun! And by “holiday fun”, of course, I mean spending far too much money on stuff I probably don’t need but desperately crave.
I managed to explore major Christmas stores in Munich, Cologne, Strasbourg, Bremen and Heidelberg, mostly thanks to my awesome sister-in-law April, who is probably even more passionate about Christmas ornaments than I am.
Walking through the entrance of some of these stores was like stepping into a new world; I felt the same wonder and giddiness that Lucy must have experienced when she first stepped through the wardrobe into a frozen Narnia. Fake icicles hang from the rafters. Angelic choruses of music boxes tinkle softly in the background. Handmade nutcrackers bared their teeth from shelves, challenging me to purchase them. Hand carved and glass-blown ornaments stretched seductively across shelves and hooks rendering me powerless against their sensual powers. They practically opened my wallet for me!
There is a commonly used phrase that compares overly excited individuals to a child in a candy shop. I propose a new idiom: from now on, we should compare those who are impressed and excited by what they see to “Jon in a Christmas store.” I think this newly coined idiom is much more accurate than the aforementioned phrase. I freely confess that I lost all financial control…well, I could actually say that I exercised great fiscal wisdom by not procuring EVERYTHING in sight for my Christmas collection…I only bought everything I liked! When all was said and done, the damage was more than my monthly grocery bill in South America…around 250 US dollars!
Although my wallet feels a bit lighter, I rest content in the knowledge that I will have myriads of new ornaments hanging from our tree this coming Christmas season.
So what do you think? Did I write this with a selfish purpose of justifying myself or am I actually just super-passionate about Christmas now that I’ve lived the holidays away from home a few times (three now to be exact…but who’s counting)? I’m still not sure…but at least I had fun with it right!?!
Four weeks ago, the full extent of my knowledge base on this small mountainous country was that it was a small mountainous country. I knew nothing about the tiny nation and had no idea what to expect when I learned that we would spend a single day there as part of a whirlwind road trip through Southern Germany. I was pleasantly surprised and Liechtenstein (not to be confused with the famous pop-artist Lichtenstein…Spellcheck seems to be having a confusion-induced aneurism right now) turned out to be one of the single most memorable places we visited in a trip full of world-class sights, monuments and experiences.
But first, some context! Liechtenstein is a German-speaking, double-landlocked country of 161 square kilometers sandwiched between the Austrian and Swiss Alps. It is the richest country in the world per capita by some measures and has the lowest levels of unemployment in the world, possibly due to its status as a shady “uncooperative tax haven”. It is ruled by a family of monarchs who still live in a twelfth century castle. A factory in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s largest city with a whopping population of 5,806, is the world’s largest producer of false teeth. Finally, the country’s national anthem is set to the familiar tune of God Save the Queen. Now you know at least ten more things about Liechtenstein than I did prior to my visit.
We arrived in Malbun, Liechtenstein’s ski resort, after a long day of visiting Neuschwanstein Castle and driving for three hours through Austria and Switzerland. It was already growing dark and our party of four adults and two toddlers were exhausted by the action-packed day. As we unpacked the rented van, the first thing that struck me other than the thin mountain air was an incessant tinkling noise that seemed to come from all directions. We quickly realized that it was the sound of hundreds of cowbells echoing through the mountains. For some reason that I still don’t understand, this noise filled me with boundless energy and, after checking into the hotel and putting my pregnant wife comfortably to bed, I set out on my own solo mini-adventure.
Whenever I see a hill, I want to climb it. Danielle occasionally calls this personality trait the bane of her existence…so naturally, upon exiting the hotel into the crisp night air, there was only one direction to go: up. I strolled as far into the mountains as the crumbling asphalt road allowed and plunked myself into the gravel at the end of the pavement. The sky was clear and the stars were bright. The air was cold enough that I could see a hint of steam when I exhaled and a faint wind rustled seas of wildflowers illuminated only by the soft light of the stars.
The cowbells provided an omnipresent background with the musical clinking and clanging of insomniac cattle.
Like I said, I still don’t quite understand why the cowbells made me so happy…but they did. I sat there in the gravel for a long time. I’m not entirely sure how much time I spent there but I’d guess it was around an hour of cross-legged contemplation of the landscape.
Sometimes there are moments in my life where I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for life and my senses. Have you ever closed your eyes and stopped to think about just how amazing it feels to take a deep breath? Marvelled at wind blowing through your hair or waves lapping against your skin? Taken your shoes off just to feel the grass or sand drift between your toes? Occasionally, I have these moments where I am filled with an ecstatic joy simply because I exist. I feel an overwhelming thankfulness for the privilege of being alive and gain an appreciation for being able to see, hear and smell some of the beauty that is on offer in our world.
That hour spent on a hilltop road in Liechtenstein was one of those moments for me.
Around midnight, I slowly picked my way down the road trying to sort through my thoughts and arrived at my hotel still unable to sleep…
The next morning, Dani and I took a beautiful walk up the same road, puttered to the top of the mountain via chair lift and visited the capital city and castle of Vaduz. We explored Liechtenstein as much as we could in a single day but by far the most unforgettable part of the whole country was my cowbell-serenaded midnight walk in the mountains. It’s one of those travel moments that I know I’ll never forget.