It's an honor to have won the TOP blog of the year, no pun intended. Thanks everyone who checked out some of my amazing travels.
The companion video to my 3 Thoughts about Germany.
Here is a posting about our visit from the Gemeinschaftsschule I'm Eicholz school we visited. Still I don't know what it's saying, but we had a great time.
It was only in November that I received an email from my assistant principal that set me off towards this great adventure. Fast forward to an application obsessive submission in February, to waiting a mere two weeks for TOP to tease a picture of the applications on their Facebook page. Coming home from conferences at Van Hoosen after my wife sent me a picture of the long awaited response letter made for one of the longest drives home. Celebrating an unreal opportunity to waiting and prepping for several months made this trip have an immense pressure to deliver upon unreal expectations of hype, which it most certainly did. Communicating ahead of time with the group made for a sense of familiarity with the group before meeting in person. The smile from my face could not be removed throughout the venture to Germany. To think someone had enough faith and confidence in me to provide me with an opportunity, was the lens I had throughout this trip. Now that this is over, the minimal tasks that TOP needs of me makes me feel like I owe them so much more for what they have provided me. I can't wait to share my experiences with my family, friends, and my school community.
The relationships developed over the course of two weeks were also memorable. I know is the bond and experiences I've shared will not be forgotten. This trip should be on a reality television show. Take 15 teachers from different states, of different ages, races, political beliefs, and bladder control and put them together for 15 days and see who will survive. Luckily we didn't lose anyone. It definitely was an eclectic mix of people as there was a constituent from Georgia, the Midwest, California, and other parts of the good ol' USA. I can't stress enough how varied we were, yet somehow we were able to become a cohesive unit. I have been definitely humbled in the presence of so many teachers who share a similar passion for education and thirst for knowledge. Rarely am I in such company that continues to pursue understanding of culture and history. For as strong as the relationships are, I was definitely ready to go home by the end. I do miss my wife. This has set in with the last four days in Berlin or so as I long for her company. Summer has officially started back in Michigan and I would love to sit back and enjoy our time together. Thankfully, I'll be able to start it with a rich collection of exciting memories to share. I can't thank enough the TOP organization and the GOETHE Institute for this amazing opportunity.
3 words for Germany - After visiting Germany, I've come across these thoughts regarding what 3 thoughts come to mind when I think about Germany.
Remembrance - The World Wars wasn’t the beginning and the end of German history. Germany’s past is omnipresent in every city. Unlike the United States that has a definite beginning date, 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Germany has no starting date. One could mention the Visigoths, to the start of the Prussian Empire, to the fall f the Berlin Wall, to any of the civilizations which have conquered Numerous cities are tied to the World Wars as many had to be rebuilt since the destruction of WWII. Germany preserves this rich history in the buildings, the culture, and the people who embrace all different sects of the government. Germany celebrates it’s rich history in the numerous castles which have been built, with strict ordinance codes to not alter the buildings far beyond their original state. Walking through any of the historical cities and you can see the pride Germans have in the cities like Heidelberg, Schwäbish, and Geisa. Beyond celebrating the past, the elephant in the room for all Germans is the dark age of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Through the memorials, preservation of various landmarks which represent the location of the atrocities like Buchenwald Memorial and Pointe Alpha Memorial, and the outlawing of Nazi symbolism, Germany is making steps to not only move forward, but also acknowledge the past.
Rebirth - two different eras of modern Germany, before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. These dark days loom loud over the people and cities of Germany, yet aren’t the end of a story, rather the beginning of a new chapter. There now is a large portion of the German population born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These dark times now only stories and words, not tangible memories. Germany has changed it’s policies and direction immensely in order to avoid the past. They have regulations on their ability to declare war, removed any Nazi ties, and have spent time and energy rebuilding the Eastern side of Germany. Germany now is a leading member of the European Union, a country far ahead of its time with environment protection, and the second leading country for immigration. Germany’s dark days are behind them as they continue to look towards the road ahead. They continue to not forget the road which they traveled to get them to where they are right now.
Beautiful buildings. - Every city and every building has some ties to the past whether the buildings are reflective of the Renaissance Era, the Prussian empire, or contemporary architecture, each building tells a story. A major period of time for all the buildings seems to be World War II. When visiting many buildings, one of the first facts I would come across was whether or not the building was destroyed during WWII or if it stayed in tact. Germany made a huge effort to restore many buildings to their original glory. Also, after the Cold War and Soviet Occupation, East Germany, From the small towns like Geisa, to the centuries old cities like Schwäbish and Heidelberg, to the bridging of historical Germany with the modern in cities like Leipzig and Berlin, Germany is home to a beautiful landscape.
On the plane and heading home. How refreshing right now it is to say this. I've loved Germany and the memories I've gained, but I'm ready to go home. It's been an unforgettable experience. Only now as I sit on the plane heading home do I have a my first few moments to try and digest what I've experienced over the past two weeks. It's been an incredible journey. A country that has always been associated with a dark past has shed a refreshing, forward thinking glaze over my eyes. Germany stands at the forefront of conservation and economic advancement. They celebrate their rich history while recognizing the brutal mistakes of the past. They aren't stuck in the atrocities as they've turned the page since the World Wars and the Cold War, yet take these dark times to remember the past and learn from the mistakes. Yesterday, I asked our guide Jörge about what the German dream is (as the American Dream is to have a family, nice house, car, etc). His answer was meant as a joke, but I honestly believe their is a sense of honesty hidden. “The German dream is to not mess up, get anyone mad, or do something wrong like we did in the past… and the dual system”. Funny last remark, but I do believe Germans can't hide the past, but in order to move forward they continue to acknowledge the atrocities. When we met with Dennis from our home visit two days ago in Berlin, he was very forward and upfront with bringing up the Holocaust and the stupidity of Neo-Nazism. I could never question the integrity of my grandparents as we are brought up to believe they are “The Greatest Generation” (though I somewhat question this, but I digress). To even question the morals of my elders is unfathomable. Without reservation, Dennis said his Grandparents most likely were involved in some fashion in the horrors of WWII, just no one would ever admit or discuss what happened. Germany has also laid memorials which we saw along the trip regarding these events, like Buchenwald, several in Berlin like the East Side Gallery, the random pieces of the wall, the WWII memorials, and Pointe Alpha Memorial. Learning about Germany's rich history was my most anticipated part of this trip, but since I only teach from 3500 BCE to 600 CE and 1900 to present, their has been a whole gap in time in German and European history I never knew much about. I saw the castles I never knew Germany had. When we arrived at the beginning of the trip in Heidelberg, I couldn't believe the buildings. For someone like myself who cares more about nature's beauty, architecture has never been something I would take much notice of when traveling. When our tour guide told us that Heidelberg was a rather new city at being 500 years old, I was aghast at the rich culture and tradition inherent in seemingly every building. We would constantly hear of some seemingly random building actually has a rich story. Perhaps the buildings, much to my surprise were the real highlight throughout the trip. The buildings varied throughout each city we visited, seemingly getting more modern the closer we headed to Berlin. Heidelberg felt like another world, from years and years ago, while Berlin seemed like it was ruled by a bunch of hipsters in an old city.
“Freeeeedoooommmm!!!” are the eternal words of William Wallace, courtesy of Braveheart. While a Scot has absolutely nothing to with Germany, the sentiment is universal. After living with a strict (though necessary schedule), the autonomy presented was refreshing. Although, it was planned by Jörge, Lauren, and I to essentially run and act like any other busy day with TOP. The main curveball would be the weather as gloomy skies and a less than favorable forecast were in the mix. Being from Michigan, Lauren and I were ready to brace the rain in an effort to see the self-hyped Potsdam yellow palace. While I knew nothing historically about the palace, from the few pictures I saw, I knew coming home and not seeing this would feel like a waste. When we set the time to leave for 10, this was a much needed day of sleeping in. When it came time to game plan in the lobby of the Motel One, everyone was ready to go, when Brett popped up and said he was still thinking of going. He made our jaws drop when he told us that he had never ridden a bike since he was a kid. This would be the last place I’d want to learn to bike, with the presumed winding roads and biking next to traffic, but he was up for the challenge. We were off to the train station to pick up a few last Euros before riding the train. I’m so grateful that Jörge was willing to go with us, even with a 75% chance of rain, he was game to join us. Along the train ride, we took in the views of Berlin, which juxtaposed beauty and modern architecture with gritty, graffiti and youthful expression. Arriving in Potsdam, we immediately walked to the nearby bike rental shop and hopped on our cruiser bikes. It had been a year since I last rode one, but I was excited to tour Potsdam on two wheels. Watching Brett fumble with his bike made me worry for how he was going to make it. Continually he was last behind us and the look on Jörge’s face, constantly checking on him, told that he was worried about how this would end. Biking down the streets of what looked like Grosse Pointe with the older, remodeled houses felt reminiscent of home. It was a stark departure from all the other places and modes of transportation we had used previously. Looking at the sky frequently, we were worried as to whether or not mother nature was going to cooperate. I took out my phone and decided to try and get some video for my eventual movie I was to make. The scenery was spectacular as we whizzed by homes that looked like it would take several lifetimes to try and afford. Jörge pointed out the places of stay for Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I was under the misconception that the famous Potsdam conference was held at the yellow palace, so when we finally arrived 3 miles later to see the actual location Cecilienhof Palace, a building which reminded me of Meadow Brooke Mansion, I was quite surprised. It’s amazing to me that simply the place of this conference has turned this building into a historical monument. When we finally arrived at the palace, Jörge asked us if we wanted to take a tour, but since this wasn’t the actual location I thought it was and nothing stood out, I voted to forgo the tour and see the yellow palace instead. Rain finally started to show, but I secured my camera in my rain coat, all the while sneaking pictures and video with my camera. Cruising further down the roads, we eventually made our way to the yellow palace, Sans Souci. Locking up our bikes, we headed past the large windmill and saw the entrance to the building. Being so accustomed to having either one of our guides or Jenny accompany us on tours, we let out sad and confused puppy dog faces unintentionally when Jörge told us he was going to wait outside for us on the tour. It felt like he was abandoning us, but he smirked and reassured us we’d be alright without him. While waiting in line we saw the back of the palace, the recreated ruin site, and we ventured into the front of the palace. I couldn’t help but associated the look with where I was married, Boulder Pointe, for it also had a similar yellow theme. The palace overlooked a wondrous courtyard and foundtain, with rows and rows of carefully sculpted boxwood plants. Unfortunately due to time, we weren’t able to venture for a closer look. Jörge gave us insights into who Frederick the Great was; an iconoclast, great leader, who had a flair and passion for the arts. Walking in to the palace, instantly we were besieged with large, gaudy, glittering gold and bronze adornments. Frederick the great led a tragic life due to the poor relationship with his father. After watching his father have his best friend killed, this led Frederick to want to have the capital of the Prussian empire in the new location in Potsdam. We used headsets to explain to us throughout the self guided tour. Entering the first main room, it radiated with gold accents on the walls and crystal chandeliers hung over our heads as we walked past the statues and paintings. While the entire tour lasted only 45 minutes and took us in to about 6 rooms, each room clearly showed a meticulous attention to detail. Upon exiting, the group seemed content to head back and finish the bike tour, but I made sure to spend several minutes and take pictures outside of the palace. The ride back was so peaceful and serene. After making our way back to drop off our bikes, we rode the train back to Alexanderplatz. Jörge presented us with the opportunity to purchase souvenirs at a mall he recommended. The mall was typical of Lakeside Mall, with 3 levels of stores. In typical Berlin fashion, the original Berlin wall must have run through the mall as their were large historical markers and pieces of the wall on display. Using the restroom, I again had to pay a Euro to use it. The first thing I did was get a Döner kebab with Jörge, though this one was nowhere near the level of taste as the one found two days prior. After perusing the mall, it was evident that this store had no ideal place to buy souvenirs, which worried me slightly as I hoped to finish my shopping for my wife here. I did take Jörge’s recommendation for the best Gelato and simply ordered what the lady in front of me had, a vanilla and chocolate scoop and a raspberry vanilla scoop. It was creamy and delicious. Afterwards, we headed straight to the Egyptian restaurant for the final group meeting. We were in a conference room and the lady facilitating the meeting was there to greet us as we waited for the rest of the group. They offered me a mint lemonade, which was truly unique. It tasted earthy, like fresh grass clippings, with a hint of sour, and full of mint. Not my ideal drink by any means, so I decided to gorge on still water, drinking over a liter on my own. Working through 3 reflective activities, we finished the night with a dinner together. When it came time to closing, I was asked to present Jörge with the group gift. When I got everyone’s attention, I briefly said thank you to Jörge and Katarina, their hospitatlity, and out of nowhere he gave me a hug and followed it up with a much better and longer speech. He praised our group and Americans for their hospitality. He also said that it’s great when you find people with similar interests and humor. Later, Katarina and Jenny received their gifts and we headed back to the hotel. It was a wonderful opportunity to close out our last meeting and dinner as a group. Later on at the hotel, I said my final goodbyes to Christina, Kristin, Tom, and Amy. We listened to Kristin’s one liner notebook and guessed who said what. I had made the book at least perhaps too many times. Finally, we all said good night and I went back and packed up one last time, gearing up for making my way back home.
This was an exhaustive trip, though I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. We started our last official day together as a group by taking the tram to the Auswärtiges Amt Besucherzentrum. The lecture was done by a passionate, intelligent, easy to understand professor, Wolf Wagner. He captured my attention throughout the 4 hour long presentation. I took notes furiously on my computer, trying to keep up with his mind-blowing, humorous, over-arching analysis of German and American relations, customs, and ideas. What he did was take everything we learned and saw on our trip and made it digestible and understandable. The best portion being when he ended with his America vs. Germany differences and they were laughable, but so true. Germans don’t use air conditioning, ice, don’t share their emotions as much, etc. One thing that flipped the TOP script is when he lambasted the dual system and praised the American educational system, contrary to the several other presentations which we had seen prior. Leaving this meeting, I was definitely revved back up to start the rest of the day, which was an exciting visit to the Berlin Wall. While random blocks of the wall would pop up sporadically throughout Berlin, there was really only one part where the wall still stood, untouched from graffiti. After taking another tram to this location, you could see the difference between East and West Germany by the cubical like housing apartments juxtaposed to the peaked roofed, intricately designed West Berlin apartments. The unique part was seeing a rust colored wall with about 150 black and white faces of the people who lost their lives trying to cross the border. Each was a sad tale, as there were some stories of very young children who fell into a river, but for fear of jumping in to save them due to the East German police, were left to drown. Most of the people who lost their lives were men. She did bring up the gentleman on my shirt I recently purchased, who was an East German military officer who risked everything to cross the border to West Germany, all the while dropping his gun in East Germany somewhat symbolically. Hans Conrad Schumann later killed himself as soon as the wall came down. We finished our tour at a 100 yard long stretch of the wall, where we were able to peer in and see no mans land as it appeared 25 years ago. It was a sparse, desolate wasteland, void of any life. To think this stretched the entire countryside and was continually guarded. It’s unfathomable to think this could happen in this day and age, then I simply think of North Korea. Afterwards, we split into three groups to visit three different homes from people who experienced the Berlin Wall firsthand. I went with Christina, Lou, Kris, and Michelle, along with Katarina who would simply drop us off. While waiting, we climbed an observation tower to overlook where we had just visited. After departing for the home visit, Katarina showed us the nearby city where affluent young German couples would strive to raise their families in the densely populated, trendy urban area. When we arrived at our home visit, I was shocked to see the front door covered in perhaps the most sinister graffiti I’ve witnessed. Inside reminded me of the abandon buildings in Detroit, but now we were to venture in and go without our guide as she was just dropping us off. Inside, we headed through the court yard where we saw bullet holes plastered along the towering side of the building. These holes were from WWII, still unpatched. Arriving at the apartment, we climbed three stairs and were greeted by a friendly German aspiring filmmaker. Inside, his apartment was covered with American movie memorabilia, in the confined spaces. It looked like a mini-college dorm, with his decorating style of lava lamps and movie posters. His kitchen was very quant, followed by his bathroom which was a renovated closet with a toilet plopped in the center. We stayed in his bedroom, adorned with various cultural knickknacks and movie equipment. He prepared us a strudel before we started. He explained his German film career, where he is working on developing a movie with filmmakers in many continents. What stood out for me from what he said was when he questioned the integrity and actions of his grandparents. He suggested that there is a good chance they did horrible things during WWII. I could never question my grandparents with these serious offenses. When finishing up with him, we made our way to Gaststätte, a German trendy bar. Before leaving Germany, I had to have one more schnitzel, unfortunately, this was lacking in quality compared to Heidelberg. Before leaving, I discussed with Jörge and Lauren our plans for tomorrow.
As the trip is winding down, we were going to see more of the sights and sounds of Berlin. Today we went back to visiting a school, which we haven’t done in a while. This school was an elementary school for Jewish students. Arriving at the school in a double decker bus, the school was definitely older, but showing character and vital signs of learning. We were greeted by the principal and ushered into the cafeteria. Immediately we had what I believe were second graders who performed a wonderful musical performance for us. Following this, we heard a brief introduction to the school, before we were split off and visited different elementary classrooms. At the start of the fellowship, I had already given all of my elementary goodies away, so I was empty handed. I noticed in the 2nd grade classroom we were observing, the SMART Board would lift up or down accordingly to whether it was in use. We were going to watch a reading lesson. Since I couldn’t understand a thing that was being said, I decided to create a gift for a kid. I found a piece of paper and a pen and drew a picture of the creature from the book the students were reading. I also added a soccer ball, and the German and American flags. The little boy that kept wanting to see what I was doing received the picture. He was smiling ear to ear. Actually, I think Kimberly was more pleased by it as she almost cried… funny. The boy put it by his desk as he worked and the teacher saw it and smiled. After the lesson, we went back to the cafeteria and heard more about the school. The students took us outside to their wall of bricks. Each one had a name on it of a Jewish person who died in the Holocaust. Every exiting sixth grader would have to research one person and add this brick to the wall. I noticed two sixth grade girls who wanted to talk to an American sixth grade teacher. While the language barrier was there, we were able to have a fun conversation. It was hilarious when I noticed from one girl the outline of a phone standing out underneath her shirt and I politely asked if phones are allowed there. No translation needed, she simply zipped up her shirt and seemed to not want to talk to me anymore. I just wanted to know if they use them! Taking a train to the fancy lunch at the Federal Foreign Office. Nearby they had delicious chocolate for sale alongside a giant chocolate bear, Reichstag, plane, and Brandenburg gate. Passing through security at the Federal Foreign Office, we were once again reminded that to be on our best behavior for the sponsor and that whomever sits next to them, to not mess up. Perhaps one of my favorite moments of the trip involved the never ending elevator. It literally never stopped. It was crazy to see it move and see everyone nervously step aboard. It was crazy seeing it and jumping in, waiting for the number seven to appear when I would literally jump off. Katarina led us to the area where we were to have lunch. A large room with a giant table, immaculately arranged table sets, and a view high above all of Germany knocked me off my feet. Go figure when it was time to get our seats, it was like a game of musical chairs, I end up sitting next to Dr. Heinz Wirth. He was a very pleasant man who is in charge of German relations with United States and Canada. He was reserved in speaking, but from what everyone said, I more then held my own in keeping up conversations. I actually did enjoy the conversations, though the food while fancy as it was, I’m not one for a giant fish on my plate to eat for lunch. It was a meeting regarding the economics of Germany, which surprisingly to me, I really enjoyed it. I found out about Germany’s role in the European Union and Greece’s current problems. Following this, all the meetings were done and Jenny had taken us to a boat tour through downtown Berlin. Sitting with Jenny and Joe, I thoroughly enjoyed the open air and simply cruising along the river. We really didn’t see too much different from what I’ve seen in my previous ventures through Berlin, but going on a boat tour was a nice change of pace. Heading back, we were to get dinner on our own and Joe wanted to get dinner together. Jenny said if we wanted to meet by 8pm, she’d take people to see Checkpoint Charlie, which I wanted to visit. Service in Germany is much slower than the United States. I was getting worried that I’d miss the 8pm meet up time, though everyone at dinner said they’d go see it anyways. I didn’t trust them enough to risk not seeing it. I quickly ordered my currywurst to go, in a styrofoam container and ran back with my food, gulpingit in my mouth as I ran, making a complete mess. The sun was setting as we walked through Berlin, eventually arriving at Checkpoint Charlie, which for as known as the name is, was really an unspectacular place. Next to it was the epitome of capitalism, a McDonalds restaurant. We made our way to the familiar Brandenburg Gate and took a few more pictures before Jenny said she was going to start taking everyone back, seeing as it was 11pm. I asked the group and Joe if they would want to join me to see the Victory Column that peered in the distance. To my surprise no one was willing, but I should have known, it was 11pm and my phone said we had already walked 11 miles. I headed out on my own, in the opposite direction. I began to realize that the column was much farther than what I anticipated. There were sections of the streets where there were no lights, it was late, I was alone, and VERY tired so I decided to expedite the picture walk by jogging to the destination. I throughout couldn’t believe how far it was, meaning the column was only bigger than what I pictured. Being exhausted from the run and the time of night, I knew the pictures I took were sloppy, which they were. Now the realization came in that I’d have to walk not only all the way back to Brandenburg Gate, but seeing as I don’t understand or trust my use of the public transportation, I had to take an additional 2.5 miles back to the hotel. Jenny said it was simply a straight line, so I hoped she was right. The walk seemed to last forever as I got back at around 12:30, only to see Jeff and Amanda in the hallway. I went back to my room and crashed, not before briefly calling Kelly. I was tired, that was an unassuming busy day.
Today we were visiting the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. After taking two different trams, we arrived at the building for immigrants to try to be incorporated in German society. Skipping past everyone through a padlocked gate, we sat at a large table to hear about Germany’s switch from being a country reluctant to help immigrants, to embracing being the second largest nation of immigrants. Germany has come a long way and definitely showed their commitment to making people transition to being a German citizen easier. Getting back on the buses, we made our way to the Turkish Hamtramck of Berlin, Kreuzberg. This area had a large population of Turkish immigrants due to after WWII and during the Cold War, West Berlin needed workers, but no one but the Turks were willing to come. The thing is they stayed. There seems to be still resentment with Berliners and the Turks as the Turks feel they aren’t true Turks and they aren’t true Berliners. After waiting with Jörge for the rest of the group, I noticed how much more graffiti Kreuzberg had than any other part of Germany. As we started walking through back alleys, we stopped to talk about a part of the tour when in the background were cops arresting 3 individuals. The fatigue was definitely setting in with the group as it seemed like no one was interested. The part that stood out for me was visiting my first mosque. This was accessed through a back alley where we had to drop our bags (my computer and camera) outside and take off our shoes before entering. The mosque was a renovated garage, with only two people praying. The carpet had arrows pointing towards Mecca. The guide was not a muslim and I thought it was surprising that we could all come in, hang out, and none of us were Muslims. At the culmination of the tour, we visited a traditional Turkish restaurant. I was extremely hunrgy, as I once again decided to forgo dinner in a hope to better enjoy the large German dinners we were having. Sitting with Michelle, Jenny, Kimberly, and Amy, we started with bread and tabouli. Next we had our main course which was to pick from behind the register from several main courses one selection. I chose the meatballs, which were not what I expected as they were in a somewhat sweet, cinnamony sauce. Being that they were only 5 small meatballs, I was still super hungry and left my first German restaurant unsatisfied. Afterwards, Jörge said he’d be willing to take the group to the East Berlin Wall. I was excited as I heard about this being spectacular prior to going. The wall is not original, but they hired artist to paint portions of the mile long stretch. Jörge took us on an enjoyable hike through the city, Michelle, Joe, Kristin and I. Jörge eventually departed from us as he ushered us to the wall. The wall was absolutely impressive. In an ironic moment, Germans not only recreated graffiti with graffiti art, but people eventually graffitied the graffiti. Some were so bad that they recommissioned the artist to put a fresh coat. Every wall was unique and told a different story, be it pop culture, a design, or a political message, it was all impressive. I was so thankful to have seen it. My favorite part was a message that said, Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world. After finishing the long wall walk, we struggled trying to find the right bus, which I simply wanted to go and walk the rest of the short way back. Eventually a lady could tell we were lost and pointed us home.
Early in the morning, we headed to the University of Leipzig to hear about the Pegida movement. This is similar to the Tea Parties radical politics going mainstream. Two professors who are experts on immigration and how Germans perceive foreigners led the lecture. Immigration and the effects of radical conservatism were the topics of today's meeting at the University of Leipzig. It was an interesting seminar held by two professors who surveyed the views of 2,500 Germans to find out if they hold any negative opinion of certain ethnic groups. Their results concluded that there are roughly 25% of the population in Germany that hold some animosity towards ethnic groups like the Jews, Muslims, and Roma population. This worried the professors as this is an untapped group that could be rallied behind a political group and use these racist ideas to run the country. The cause of most of these thoughts have been ingrained in the culture due to it being passing on by parents. Interestingly enough, teaching important facets of German history like the World Wars. Only in recent years have they started incorporating this vital history into their youth. A young professor said that the idea of racism wasn't a subject taught in schools. Due to the increase of extremism against immigrants, many people are joining a worrisome movement called the Pegida movement. Departing Leipzig afterwards was bittersweet as Leipzig offered a fresh big city feel, chalk full of culture and infectious music. Getting all of my belongings, we reluctantly left the amazing Westin Inn. We had to walk about a half a mile back and something got into Brett as he was playing frogger with the busy traffic. He also hurried way ahead, far past where we needed to go. Jörge told him, “Brett, we aren’t walking to Berlin”. Before entering the train, I made sure to get some famous currywurst. It was exactly how it sounds, curry plus ketchup on top of a bratwurst. Not great, but not awful either. When the train entered in to Berlin, it was awe inspiring to see the magnitude of the train station which welcomed us to Berlin. We had to take three escalators just to get to the subway to the hotel. Jenny was so excited to be in Berlin, hyping it throughout the trip, but after Heidelberg and the beautiful countryside, I was skeptical, as I thought Berlin and all my preconceived ideas of it’s grittiness wouldn’t live up to the beauty of the aforementioned. The lights, the tvs, the advertisement overload, all screamed big city. The fashion as ever-present throughout our time on the train to the hotel in Alexanderplatz. We were staying at the Motel One, a teal hued themed motel. After the fifteen minutes to drop our belongings off, Katarina and Jörge would be our guides. Hopefully they’d be the whole time in Berlin as they live in the city. The first place we visited after taking a tram was to the Reichstag, Berlin’s capital building. It was gorgeous and there were similarities in presence to our capital building. The sky was bright blue, a picture perfect day. A renewed energy hit as we entered a new and our last city. Taking pictures outside the monument lasting a while, but we eventually made our way to the Roma and Sinti memorial. This was unique as there are little to no memorials for these Holocaust victims. They are essentially gypsies, people without a home. There was a serene park with a small circular pond in the middle. In the center of that was a tiny triangular dish with a flower on it. The flower will fall into the water at the end of the day, only to be replaced later. Moving on, we walked to the famous Brandenburg Gate. This was an auspicious site for Germany. I learned that this was the location that when Germany would fall under another control, this was the place that symbolically was important to capture. Napoleon took the crown off the head of the statue on top and took it to France with him and the Nazi’s hung their famous flags in the middle of each of the pillars to announce their arrival. Next we went and saw the homosexual memorial, which similarly to the Roma and Sinti, I doubt there are many mentions or memorials dedicated to this group. This was unique as I think the abstract meaning definitely made sense. There was a large, unassuming stone square pillar at the entrance of a park with a small black square hole in the middle. While this looked uneventful, it was only when you peered in the black square would you see a couple embracing on a green tv screen on loop. We made it to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, which our definitely opinionated guides let us know that this memorial wasn’t as welcomed as you would think. Essentially this is a super abstract memorial, made up of some random number of rectangular stone blocks, lined in rows of various sizes for the length of a large park. People aren’t supposed to climb on it, but controversy follows this as people are doing just that. The ground floor is unlevel, giving you the feeling of unease. People think that this memorial is too abstract and a sham, also because they think it’s just an easy excuse for politicians to visit once a year nearby and be done with paying tribute. Next we headed past a small part of the Berlin Wall, littered with gum, which covered nearly the entire piece. My battery on my camera died, so I’m running off only the old fashioned memories here. We took in the sights of the rebuilt Potsdamerplatz commericial center which had three very large and impressive buildings. Katarina took us through the Sony Center where one could be mistaken to think that they were in a US city due to the abundance of American pop culture. The recently released Jurassic World was playing in IMAX in prominent display. Making our way to dinner, we headed to a Thai restaurant near our hotel. It was cramped inside. I tried a delicious curry milk meal that was very tasty. My streak of ordering good food continued. Finishing up the meal, we headed back, and due to my memory and my camera being out, I don’t remember if we did anything else. Either way, it was a long, amazing day.
The expectations of the Westin were somehow far exceeded. The relaxing bed, the cozy environment, the melt your body away lounge chair, the exquisitely refreshing bathroom, to the 26th floor view overlooking Leipzig, no hotel was going to beat this experience, sorry Berlin. After waking up, I checked my camera and saw my long time-lapse from my room showed an amazing sunrise over Leipzig. The breakfast offered a smorgasbord of every breakfast food you think a fancy restaurant would offer, i.e. no waffles. The ambiance was one of luxury and I felt like wanting to savor every fleeting minute in the hotel. Today we were going to tour Leipzig, which already showed great promise for a wonderful stay. Like everyplace we visited in Germany, the city was unique in architecture as the buildings were much taller, much newer, but still had a German flair in the architectural design. Leipzig like Mannheim was heavily damaged from WWII, only later to be rebuilt. There is some controversy that all the money pouring into rebuilding the city and paid by the west, now is more advanced and better off than the buildings in the west. No public form of transportation was needed either today as after crossing the main downtown busy roads (with the lovingly awesome Ampelmännchen Mario and Luigi crossing guards), we were in the downtown area. The buildings towered over us as we headed to our first stop, the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History. Walking through the streets along the way, you couldn’t help but soak in the numerous sideshow musicians of seemingly every genre, most likely playing their interpretation of Bach. It was Bachfest apparently in the town and they had erected in the marketplatz a large city stage for presumably a large show production of a Bach concert at night. Before going to the museum, we stopped by and entered an angelic looking church, which was in the midst of a service. I snuck some pictures with my GoPro as this church was jaw droppingly gorgeous with its pale pink, white, and sage green color scheme. The music also was the most beautiful music my ears have ever heard. The Leipzig museum finally offered something to help us hear the soft spoken guide, an ear piece. Hazzah! Especially after Point Alpha Memorial, I’ve been so intrigued by the Cold War (though I wish that more discussion and learning about WWI and WWII would have happened) and this museum was all about that area. Like every museum, everything was primarily in German, so luckily we had a guide. It was amazing to think that this could happen in a civilized country like Germany. Going along with Tankman, Gandhi, and Mandela, the TOP application question about Leipzig uprising I thought would add to my holy trinity of peaceful protesters, but unfortunately it was only sparsely mentioned. Seeing the immediate raising of the wall was surreal as how can anyone actually think what is happening is going to be a wall that will divide a country for over 25 years? It was an enlightening tour learning about the GDR. When we finished, I couldn’t believe my ears, we were given 3 hours of freedom before our next tour. I couldn’t believe it, freedom! I split from everyone and relished every quiet moment to myself. I’d like to say I did something super eventful, but getting gelato, and visiting random sites several times along my long walk isn’t super crazy. I went back to the St. Thomas Church we visited last night and I noticed a decent amount of people watching the rehearsal of students on the balcony above, but only this time I could see and hear them. I headed out shortly after stopping in, but realizing I had time to kill and sitting for a little bit was too enticing for me to miss. I went and watched and savored the performance, which tickled the senses as you could feel the religious aura they presented in the historic church. Heading back to a large church we visited earlier as a group, I entered again now that service had ended and took some pictures of the most beautiful church I’d seen in all of Germany. Wandering around town, I took Manny’s advice and stopped back in the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History from earlier and took a self guided tour through both floors. Each room had enough English for me to understand the topic and the intimacy of a near empty museum further let me feel at peace and recharge my battery, before having to meet back up with the group. Outside the museum we reconvened and headed down the Leipzig cobblestone streets to the Museum in the Round, aka the Stasi museum. I was fatigued and it took a while for the tour to really capture my attention, but eventually it did big time. Essentially this is the only museum about a secret service as all the others are still a secret. Shortly prior to the Wall falling, the people protested and shut the building down, effectively freezing the records and work of the paranoid, controlling government. Shockingly, any East German can request for free to see if their was a Stasi file on them, which they are still collecting information and adding new files. Families turned on each other and paranoia ran rampant throughout East Germany. The spy materials used were also unique yet excessive. One can only imagine how much more intrusive the NSA is gathering information on us/me. They are probably reading this right now. Why hello. Anyways, after the meeting, we went to a fancy restaurant located below the streets. When my three meat meal came in a cast iron skillet, I was so hungry. I believe it was veal, steak, and pork, cooked to perfection. Surrounding it was what looked like a hot mess, but the quasi mashed potatoes meets spinach artichoke dip side dish was mouth watering. Afterwards, we headed back. Alas, this was the last night in Leipzig and more disappointing, the wonderful Westin. I made sure to savor the good night sleep to its fullest.
Breakfast was a limited choice of cold cuts and eggs at the castle. Sadly we were only able to spend one night here in the beautiful scenery. Point Alpha Memorial was an eyebrow raising listing on our original itinerary. I had never heard of the place, though the description mentioning the importance for the Cold War captured my attention. After a short bus ride from the hotel with our belongings stored at the hotel’s conference room, we headed to Point Alpha Memorial, located in the Fulda Gap. Compared to most of the other TOP fellows, I didn’t essentially live through the Cold War like they did, so this seemed to mean more to them, though I tried to catchup. In as remote of a location as we would be on the trip, we arrived in the middle of the German countryside, pulling up to a bright blue building with white trim, easily standing out from any traditional German building we had come across prior. The day was hot and we were finally able to wear our casual clothes. Our tour guide Sebastian was helpful in explaining the importance and significance of the Fulda Gap in relation to the Cold War. Essentially and shockingly, if WWIII was going to start, it was going to start right in this location. Battle plans were drawn up and uncovered from both sides, explaining how they would have attacked. There were also several close calls where we were mere seconds from war. Afterwards, we headed down a path which was No Man’s Land. No one from either side would pass and you could see the opposing watch towers staring at each other. On the Eastern side, there would also be small bunkers hidden along the path. The reason this area would have been the start of WWIII is because it was a gap that if either side made it’s way through, would split Germany’s resources in half. Making our way to the end of the path, we headed left up towards the American side, and up an observation tower. The view was breathtaking as you could see the serene beauty for miles. Looking down, you could see the American troop’s barracks, now converted into a museum and cafeteria. Slowly, this location has become more of a tourist attraction. We were treated with a buffet style lunch of Mediterranean olive oil pasta, what I believe to be a pork steak, and potato salad. It was hot being out in the sun, but it also felt great at the same time. I also was able to see the barracks, which bizarrely was all about America’s involvement and had copious American patriotism throughout the building. Outside were tanks, jeeps, and helicopters which were at one point stationed here. It’s amazing to think of the wasted resources from both sides of the Cold War spent guarding the borders, which could have been put to much better use. Finishing at Point Alpha, we headed back to the conference room at Fulda. There, we listened to a lady who experienced living in East Germany and explained her accounts of life in East Germany and how things have changed. One thing that did stand out was how you can get a Stasi file to see if the government spied on you before. There was a lot of paranoia going around in East Germany throughout the Cold War. After her presentation, we boarded a bus for the train station, and made our way to Weimar. This was an important location for the often mention Goethe. We were going to stay in a hotel which served as a residency for him. I offered to take a taxi with Jörge to help move everyone’s luggage. Inside the hotel, it was a typical room; two twin beds, a tv, and a comfortable atmosphere. Once again, we had only minutes to go and relax before heading back out. We followed our guides through the cobblestone streets towards the restaurant which would serve Italian cuisine. The restaurant was posh, with an outdoor setting seemingly throughout the entire area. We were served great appetizers of various meat. I had for dinner a 4 meat platter; bacon, pork, beef, and lamb. It was amazing to say the least. It continually amazed me how time would fly as these very long days seemed like they were only hours. We always did so much.
Today would mark a big day for the group. We were about to experience the full power and might of the German train system and hope to survive it. In an effort to make things a little less chaotic for us, we ended avoiding the train right away and departed with a coach bus to Karlsruhe to visit the Industrie- und Handelskammer (IHK) Karlsruhe, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce Karlsruhe. We made it faster than anticipated and were able to take some pictures infant of the mammoth yellow Karlsruhe Palace. Unfortunately it was under construction and we had only limited time to view it. This building has the task of representing general interests of businesses located in their district to promote industry and trade. They give proposals, expert opinions and reports, and working to maintain the principles of decent and ethical business practice. They prided themselves on their relationship with the school systems and businesses, i.e. the dual system. Afterwards, we boarded our coach bus and made our way to the nearby translation. This would be the first real time we would have to travel with all of our belongings. Not realizing how much room my souvenirs from Heidelberg would take, they now caused me to not only drag around my suitcase and wear my backpack, but I also had to now carry my camera bag on my shoulder. It definitely was not going to be easy. At this point we said so long to Alexander and Asterid and waited for our train. We were coached on doing a bucket brigade with our suitcases, which 5 guys including myself volunteered for. We had two minutes to do this. Eventually we squeezed through the hallway and somehow found our luggage. They reserved for us three separate rooms. I was with Laura, Kris, Amanda, Jeff, Christina, and Kris. Arriving at next stop, as soon as we departed from the train, we were greeted by a voice who said, “Hello Matthew”. Who was this who already knew me I wondered. It was Katarina, our new guide, accompanied by Jörge. Both of them were much younger than the previous guides, but both with their own sense of style. Katrina immediately showed her lively spirit and Jörge was more in the background, wearing all black. They took us through the train station to the coach bus, which would take us to the next city, Fulda. Along the way Jörge mentioned that he thinks it’s interesting that Americans are so obsessed with taking care of the American flag; how we have to fold it a certain way and burn it when we no longer need it. Walking through the train station, we saw a man wearing a sombrero, Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and a wig, accompanied by his buddies. He can pandering for some money in a jovial way, which we all were in shock and I’m sure a little bit scared what the crazy man wanted. I mentioned to Jörge that he thinks we are strange with the flags… he smirked and said, “Good point”. The coach bus took us through the countryside of Germany, further into what seemed like a much more remote area. Arriving in the small city of Fulda, adorned with more cobblestone roads and flanked by quant German style homes, unique in architecture compared to Heidelberg, we pulled in to the castle which was to be our residency for the night. A castle, seriously, how cool is that?! Entering in the spacious lobby, you could see far into the countryside and the small town beyond. Walking down the renovated castle corridor, the large open lobby in my floor’s entrance was a unique feature I’ve never seen at a “hotel”. My room had the similar setup where in order to have the electricity on, you needed to have your checkin card in the door. I think this is an amazing feature that subtly helps the environment. Inside my room was a large ceiling, a modern bathroom, a twin bed tucked perfectly into the wall, plenty of space, and a huge window with white drapes, over looking the parking lot. After spending the required 15 minutes to get ready, I headed down to the lobby to wait. The bakery on the outside looked like a welcoming ma’ and pa’ store. We were immediately ushered through to the back of the store where there were tables placed in the concealed outside patio. The bakery workers made us wear plastic hair nets and a plastic apron, all the style you can imagine. Entering in the part of the bakery where the bread is made, it was dimly lit, with large steel ovens, three large mixing bowls, and a couple of props for the head baker use. Jörge translated for her. She was so animated and proud of her work and her family’s story. The bakery is one of the oldest bakeries in all of Germany, continuing through the Cold War in East Germany. She did mention that she is struggling with the increase of large supermarkets and that working at the bakery takes a lot of work. She said that unfortunately the centuries old bakery will most likely close in a couple of years unless her daughter finds a husband willing to take on the bakery with her. Once we finished listening to the presentation, we went to the tables in the court yard and were given a plate of marshmallow like cheesecake, a brownie, and some salami with bread. We ended up walking down the nearby hill into a beer garden. We were told dinner was on us, so I got a bratwurst and french fries. Before eating, we were treated to some men playing large horns, similar to the Riccola commercial. My naivety made me feel like every song sounded like Amazing Grace. It was just the 18 of us at dinner and the five horn players sitting nearby, in what could be mistaken for someone’s back yard. It was very peaceful to eat and socialize at the restaurant. I went with Jenny to take some pictures of these goats at the nearby fence. I kept getting better and better shots as I moved closer to the goats, especially a baby goat. As soon as I got the best picture of the group, ZAPPP, I go flying backwards. No one told me this was an electric fence. I immediately looked at my hand, no scars, just a heavily beating heart. The look on Jenny’s face was of fear, but I was able to laugh it off. I finally had a rush of energy and felt like I finally got over any remaining jet lag. Back at the table, I sat next to Kimberly and easily made her laugh the whole night and started referencing her covering her face with her sweatshirt as a “Ninjaface”. Awesomely, even Jörge went along with the action. Finally, I headed back to the castle, laughing my way up with Michelle and Kimberly. It was another great night in Germany.
About Matthew Cottone
Experience the World! This is my creed I bring to my classroom and my life. I'm a World Studies teacher at Van Hoosen Middle School and I have a passion for learning and experiencing the world.