Munich: The Culture of Memory

September 27, 2014
New York City - JFK Airport

The carry-on’s clutch shook as he clenched the handle’s grip, impatience fueling frustration. “This line,” he muttered, a mopped shag twisting to the exasperated shake of his head. 

The man leaned over, surveying the curved JFK security line in front. Passengers and baggage snaked long ahead from where he stood, I watching from behind. The line mandated commitment. Commitment spiked with a generous pinch of patience.

In the security line of an international airport, worlds so easily collide despite check in signs for countries where cultures divide. But here in the queue itself, we’re all one and the same. A parade of ants trudging forward: the gift of speed handed over for the power of patience.


“Passport,” the gruffness of the officer’s tone connoted one of a man rooted in his seat far longer than the hour I’d stood waiting. The officer nodded sharply, maneuvering me robotically along the motions of the stringent U.S. airport process. My orange case-- the same that's followed my travels from Thailand onward-- slid through the mouth of the security reel.  I tugged the clutch upward and suitcase forward.

50 minutes left until takeoff.


**** 

September 28- October 2, 2014
Munich, Germany

Marienplatz, Munich's central plaza

It's always the trees, scattered like seeds across a cityscape that I notice first. And then the cars, how toy like they seem, moving but a hairline along weaved strips of roadway below. The minutiae of daily life among the history and culture embedded within a city plays no role in that initial observation. It’s a carte blanche of sorts as the plane submits to gravity, diving onto the smooth stretch of the Munich runway. 

My jet lag would cloak over by 8 p.m., hours after Kayli, one of my oldest camp friends, had picked me up at the airport. She guided us onto Munich’s S-bahn commuter train and on toward Feldafing, where Kayli lived with the family whom she au paired for.

By 9 p.m., we met up with Kayli’s friends at Oktoberfest, the ambience thick with the thrill of the festival’s miles long stretch of rides and tents, vomit-strewn floors, women in dirndls and men in lederhosens. 

There must have been thousands crowded inside the beer halls, bodies loose with energy as we joined in, stepping up onto a picnic tabletop. The live band energized the night, positioned in the center of the hall amid ribbons and frills adorning the interior from the top down.

I’d learn on a Munich walking tour that some 70,000 visitors flock to Oktoberfest over the course of the weeklong celebration. Picture it as the Mardi Gras of Germany’s south. The celebration feeds the culture of the city where-- be you a local or visitor-- the beer glass transcends country lines: international appreciation for the Bavarian national pastime.

The craze of an Oktoberfest beer hall.
**** 

"Germany?" my grandparents emailed back, a response charged with the familiar tone of those who grew up in the shadows of the Second World War. My grandfather lived in London, my grandmother evacuated to Wales. Their World War II stories are ones of sirens sounded and shelters sought during the German bombing blitz of the early 1940s. For my grandparents, Germany was a threat to their country, not just to the Jewish people. 

My grandfather visited Germany in 1952 as a student, returning with my grandmother in the 60s to explore, as they explain, "new Germany." Yet among the majority of Jewish grandparents, the reluctance to visit and resistance to purchase German goods remains strong. The history, after all, is personal, the scars lasting. It's our generation-- three generations since-- that is among the first to shake the reservation, removed enough so not to let Germany’s past bar us from exploring the country it’s progressed to today.

The pitter-patter of rain slows as the S-bahn approaches Stranburg, the serene stretch of a translucent lake coming into view. Contours of the dewy mountainous distance add only slight gradation to the gray-blue scheme. From here, we're about 40 minutes to Marienplatz, Munich’s main square bearing the city’s central landmarks.

My decision to visit Germany had not developed at random, as my travels never, however last minute planning, are. It was three years ago in Paris that I’d befriended Natalia and Sergej, two Germans who, despite not being Jewish, joined me my last evening in Paris for Shabbat at Chabad.

New Town Hall in Marienplatz
My Shabbats at the Champs Elysees Chabad shaped so much of the experience I took away from those six months in Paris. The people I met, the friends I made—you never know how parts of your life trickle through as the years unfold. I used to always take visitors I’d meet to Trocadero after Shabbat. It's Paris’s best view to watch the Eiffel Tower’s light show, on the hour every hour once the veil of night cloaks the city.

That last evening Natalia and Sergej gave me the company I'd offered so many others-- as we raced from Shabbat dinner to Trocadero, the two of them sitting through the blur of my tears as the flicker of the tower’s dancing bulbs twisted my torn heart. 

It seems so small in retrospect, but Natalia and Sergej’s selflessness served one of the early catalysts that would set me in motion to consider Germans today away from my preconceptions defined from a war seven decades ago.

Choosing to visit Germany challenged me to consider a world that has made steps toward accepting, with structure in place to never forget. No one asks us to forgive. But we can choose to push aside and enter proud—proud of the Jewish heritage that persists today decades since any plan to once rid it from existence.  

The lake at Stranburg. From here, it's about 40 minutes to Munich's city center.

****

I spent my first two days in Munich exploring the travel book’s recommendations: stifling the giggles as I assessed a scene of sunbathing nude elders at the Englischer Garten; delving into World War I history at the Jewish Museum; and paying respects to Olympia Stadion’s memorial to the Israeli athletes kidnapped and killed by Palestinian terrorists.

Day one, however, began as I love to start first days in any new city:

Simply, walking around.


****

When in Europe, fashion flare over utilitarian comfort holds. Until your back gives out, and your shoulders hurt and holes form under your shoes. And whatever notion of looking semi a-la-mode in white flats with gold tips so quickly dissipates in lieu of the tourist in sneakers appeal.

Our group’s footsteps slowed as we—a group of 23 on a three-hour walking tour— approached the alleyway. I peered down, trailing the scaled rings curved around a thick weave of golden stones. The beveled pavement felt smooth under the soles of my worn flats. 

Germans, our guide explained, would sneak down this very path in World War II's early days to avoid saluting the SS stop around the corner. But as SS officers caught wind of the cut through, they shifted their efforts to patrol of the passageway. Those with neither adequate reason to enter nor proof of identity were publicly beaten or shot.

“These golden steps here honor the courage of those Nazi resistors," our guide said. He was a husky man, his blue rugged jeans sagging clumsily over beaten sneakers. “Think of life under Nazi rule. Of the Germans with a family to support, children to raise, a life to protect," he urged. "Were you guilty if you didn’t resist the Nazis?"

My gaze traced the golden design, spokes of moss spotting ridges between stones.  I’m quick to consider the Jewish plight under Nazi rule. But how often do I remember those who risked their lives to protect others from threat? The culture of memory pervades the very essence of how we understand history, framing the heroes and villains within. But what-- or better yet, who-- defines the one who did wrong? Were you guilty if you didn’t defy Nazi oppression? 

It's hard to imagine Munich once patrolled by Nazi officers, of swastikas blazed onto blood red flags draping building exteriors. What did it mean to be guilty? And what relevance does it hold, seventy years later? 

There’s no simple answer, in the way the Holocaust is not a black and white story. Yet, no one asks us to forgive, and no one mandates that we answer. The scars of Germany’s past undoubtedly shape the framework of the country’s character, an ever reminder of the evil of man unto the framework of society. But the brutality of their Nazi history, the persecution of Jews before, and the country’s split following is not a story Germans shy away from.  And so we can choose to push aside-- to bear to witness the memory of the Holocaust's victims, and take a moment to consider the courage of those who resisted Nazi rule.

"Were you guilty?" our guide repeated, eyeing us carefully. "And if so, how guilty?" He sighed deeply, the breath compressing into his chest. 

My gaze swept along the curved design, the golden color contrasting beautifully against the rich purple of the paved walkway. It’s the golden lining of a lesson for us all—of our potential to meet valor and courage, bravery and perseverance in the face of cruelty and horror.  

I didn't come to an answer that morning, and haven't in the weeks since. For perhaps seventy years after a war that scarred and shaped Germany as it stands today, perhaps it's ok not to have an answer.

To be continued….


S-bahn stop at Feldafing, where Kayli lived and I stayed.
Photo taken in the early hours of the morning, as I took the train to the airport-- leaving Munich and en route to Berlin.

A Breath in Time: Final Thailand Days


June 18, 2013
The breath streams in, pressing deep through the chest before releasing hard into the core. Tension tears but the body grips to its balance. Each second passes— still, silent.

Our teacher guides us with a liquid lightness, curling her toes onto the edge of her mat. Her arms rise swiftly like knives slicing stillness in two.

Twenty hands follow.

The canvas of the room’s only window frames her fiery red hair, jarred by the aluminum domino view of Bangkok’s skyline. Twenty six floors up and life outside seems so distant.

Inhale. Outside, where each passing moment chips at our last few hours in Bangkok. Where later that day we’d shuffle into our last cab, sweeping through the rich curves of the city streets.

Exhale. Where the taxi would stall in the congestion of Bangkok’s traffic, eventually drawing in to the gateway of our exit.

The plane would tear through the runway that night, soaring over shrinking pieces of a downtown view, no care for my aching desire to cut the breath, to hook the sensation and keep it, just a moment more.

Inhale.

Wisps of hair graze my shoulders, clenched between folds of pressed skin. I follow our teacher’s lead, lowering the hands in prayer, softly scanning forehead to heart. I separate my lips to heave out a bellied “om." The breath skirts upward, fluttering up before disappearing out into the space.

I shut my eyes, falling into the breath’s patterned cycle. Time relaxes and all is still, just for the moment.

Bangkok, Thailand

****
June 14- June 18, 2014
Caitlan and I flew into Bangkok from Koi Samui that Friday morning, stumbling back into the hotel we’d stayed at our first week in Bangkok. But of course our room wasn’t ready until the 2 p.m. check in. “I’ll see what I can do,” the lady at the front desk said stoutly, whisking us away. It was just barely 9 a.m. so Caitlin and I curled onto the hard floor of the waiting area, too dazed to note our discomfort.

We’d registered for high tea at the swanky Shangri-La hotel a few days later.  A heavenly buffet caved in our corner of the lobby’s lounge— a steaming porcelain pot serving our centerpiece for our little table for two. We were the few white faces among the majority upper-crust Thai families.  The women, I noted, were pale, their coiffed hair permed. Couples—husbands with their wives, elderly women with their troupe of male dancers and the token older gentleman with his notably younger female counterpart— sashayed the afternoon away on the ballroom floor, gracefully tapping in tune to the band’s live music.

I had a made us a list of the must-do itinerary that turned into the never-happened bullet points. (Museums reservations at a counterfeit museum were overbooked; Our dress code, at one bar, was off.)

But what I did manage to get was a fake designer watch at a Bangkok night market, after weeks of egging Caitlan to stop at each watch stand we passed. I had managed to get us pulled into a shady alleyway in Chiang Mai, an enclave concealed by a velvet curtain where stacks upon stacks of watches were piled. Four businessmen huddled in the narrow corner eyeing us deftly. I, naturally, got the giggles.

Kapkoonka, but no thank you,” we spit out, scurrying back out into the flurry of Chiang Mai’s bustling market.

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

****
A tuk-tuk ride was on the itinerary that last night in Bangkok.

"Where to?" Caitlan asked, eyeing the clothes strewn among our hotel room. We’d be leaving the following afternoon.

"Anywhere," I responded.

And so after a kapkoonka (or ten) and a bigger baht fee than anticipated, we haggled a driver into giving us a round trip tuk tuk ride. Caitlan and I gripped the steel poles as we winded from the backpacker strip of Khao San toward the Grand Temple complex, streaming toward spokes of jeti golden tips towering overhead.

The breeze whipped our faces as the tuk tuk rattled on, memories and moments of the month rushing forward. We had walked those steps our first day in the city, dodging the tourist dupes of “friendly men” keen to explain the Grand Temple was closed, “but we can get you in our own tour.”

And it was in that moment that I let go. Let go of my search for the story I’d been chasing that month. Let go of the anxiety of returning to the states (post-grad jitters to attend to, internship to begin, new lease to start). I let go, forcing focus on the moment and my appreciation for the time spent sharing this experience with one of my closest friends. Because that’s what our month, this story was about: guiding each other through the unknown of both our worlds, the changing pace of life post-grad and the adventure of a pause in between.

Caitlan says she watches movies for the moment. I travel for the moment. For the moment it clicks, for the rush of the feeling, the step back from life— the freeness it breeds and the greater clarity it allows.

I’ve been playing with the idea of time since reading Jess Walter’s book Beautiful Ruins. He leaves off the novel with a note addressing the place time as a concept has in developing a story's meaning.

Time didn’t define our trip. It shaped it. It enabled it. And so what place does time have in the story and memories we've taken away? Time has every place and no place in memory. Time permits experience. Experience provides memory's basic plot of time. And the story folds over once meaning is found.  



****
The taxi draws into the airport’s departure gate, stalling as it parks. The driver unloads our carry-ons, packed in more tightly than how they’d arrived.

It all blurs, the check in to security to the hours waiting for the flight. The yoga class that morning seemed as if it had happened years back.

Inhale.

We board, the two of us seated at opposite ends of the last row. That had been my luck on my flight back from Australia. On a positive, it meant we were closer to the bathroom.

Exhale.

Seven months later and Thailand has settled in as another chapter to life’s bounty of experiences. We’ve taken away the memories—stories of bartering down taxis, zip-lining our life down the slopes of Chiang Mai’s rattled ropes. Of curling up on an overnight train and booking a flight from Koi Samui to Bangkok 13 hours before take off.

Our story was of paying that extra $7 for air conditioning in our Ko Phi Phi bungalow, only to awake the following morning to a power outage. Of the time I ran from a dog, thinking it were a bug while in Pai (don’t ask) and subsequently crashing into a tree, scraping my gum on the bark. Caitlan rolled her eyes each time I struck conversation with a taxi driver (who never spoke English), and I can’t count the times I mistook a customer for a waiter.

What place does time have in memory? Time, as a concept, gave us the moments. Time in numbers: one month. Two girls. Ten cities.

Inhale.

One incredible adventure.

Exhale.

And that’s the story. Really, no more than that.

Grand Temple, Bangkok, Thailand



Ko Phi Phi and Koi Samui: A piece of the whole




June 11-13, 2013

There are the moments when words escape. Where all clears and clarity breaks through. The ends tie and-- just for a moment-- the meaning I'm forever in search of surfaces, ushered in by...

something.

Bullets of rain puncture the peace, setting off a current of ripples across the expanse of the water. We've been away for three weeks. I still haven't captured my story.

The drops fall as if in choreograph, slowly letting up as the rain lessens. The tide washes over, the islands in the distance reappear and again, all is calm. 

I turn to walk away, nowhere closer to finding my story—yet vaguely aware it’s not really about the story.

_____________
The ferry’s door had been left ajar as we trudged abroad our third mode of transportation: hour six of the day’s total eight-hour trek from Ko Phi Phi to Koi Samui.

We’d spent two days in Ko Phi Phi, a stunning island run rampant by the white tourists flooding the small space. It’s where I met my monkey-to-be, my macaque prince charming named JoJo who wore a diaper and a shirt. His  owner had let me hold him in exchange for 100 baht ($3).
Prince charming

Ko Phi Phi is on the one end of Thailand—Koi Samui on the other. It’s a four hour ferry ride from Koi Samui to the island of Krabi, a two hour bus ride (themed 70s style with faded pink curtains and worn, neon blue seats) across Krabi.

And finally this ferry, our final, two-hour boat ride.


The Hangover 2 was playing in the ferry's downstairs room. We settled in just as the ferry official walked through, row by row. We watched those seated grab their items, stand up and head out.

“An extra 40 baht to sit inside?” one huffed. I turned to Caitlan. 40 baht? The chutzpah.

You know you’ve been in Thailand for a bit when 40 baht is reason to curl up on the floor of the outdoor deck—which is what we did, grabbing our stuff and following the trail of others in no mood to dish out 40 baht for a cozy seat.

Even if, you know, 40 bhat is just over $1.
_____________

The vibe of the south differs sharply to that of the north. Touristy and far more expensive. Water was 28 baht. Anywhere else, 14 baht for a tall bottle was the norm. 

We spent an evening and full day in Koi Samui, letting the afternoon drift away as we laid out on the island’s largest beach. 

We left Koh Samui somewhat on a whim. Our plan that Wednesday had been to leave that Friday. Destination: Bangkok. Transportation: TBD. By Thursday, we crossed off the overnight train ride option, deciding, rather, to book a flight-- which we did, 13 hours before it was due to take off.

____________

It was a few months back-- well before graduation-- and I was at coffee with a friend. He asked me for a story. So I told him about my interview with a Civil War connoisseur.

Cool, my friend had responded. But that’s not your story. Think about it, he challenged.



It’s the challenge the follows today.

I dig my toes in the sand, letting the smoothness of the waves crash over the bareness of my feet. The shrill of the music’s vibrations power the moment. It;s a refreshing contrast to the stillness of the water.

I stop, my gaze fixed ahead as if, for the moment, the world stops spinning and I’m standing, at the center of where I’m supposed to be. There’s an infinite tide of possibilities so far ahead. I can sense that. There’s a story that awaits. The same one I’m living today.

Life is our story. Each moment is the experience. And it’s the moments that piece together to create the whole. From here, on the edge between water and depths of opportunity, there’s no way I can see the full story.

My toes tingle as the water gapes through the open spaces.

For now, I’m just experiencing a bit of the whole.
 

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