Saturday, July 12, 2008

Berlin, Germany

May 24, 2008 ~

We traveled west across the northern part of Germany, awed as usual by the lush green, gorgeous landscape. As we drove, we listened to the book on CD, "Night" by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor. He and his family were taken to Auschwitz from his home in Hungary when he was 15-years old.

Anyway, we stopped about an hour and a half south of Berlin to satisfy serious stomach rumblings. If you've been reading this blog for very long, I'll give you two guesses as to where we stopped -- and it wasn't the Golden Arches this time.

So while my family filled up on Burger King chicken wings, burgers, and fries, I indulged in something a little more romantic -- to go with my hamburger. Our children finished their dinner and then got their wiggles out on the playground. (See Eli swinging on that bar in the background?)

There was a little boy, about 5-years old, who came over and started throwing dirt at my children. His parents sat there watching and laughing and after a moment of surprise, my children gathered their wits about them and turned the whole thing into a rollicking good time with the boy chasing them and hurling fistfuls of dirt at them. Fortunately, the sweet boy laughed so hard himself that it disarmed him from hitting his darting targets. Finally, with five winded children ready for a break, we headed back to the van -- that's when we realized we had added an extra child to our numbers. It was adorable! When we stopped and tried to tell him he couldn't come with us, he wasn't having any of it. "Nein, du nicht kommt mit," Isaiah tried to tell him. The dad came over to retrieve the little runaway and finally the boy relented and waved goodbye to us. So, so cute!

Our family always gets some good laughs from the signage here in Europe! This one, translated, says, "Pleasant Journeys!" smile.

So we arrived in Berlin as the sun began to sink on the horizon, checked into our hotel, watched about 20 minutes of some International Music competition, and then snuggled in for a good night's rest. Tomorrow's agenda: The Berlin Zoo!

This mural was painted on the wall in the tiny courtyard behind the hotel.

We left the windows open and all through the night we could feel the warm night breeze blowing across our faces. Every time the low murmur and rhythmic whoosh, cha-chunk, cha-chunk of the metro train passed, the curtains came to life, their white wispiness floating into the room.

Dreamy, I tell ya! Absolutely, positively dreamy!!

May 25th ~

The next morning we packed our bags back into the van, moved to the zoo's parking lot and then sought out a good place for breakfast. We found this quaint little Mexican restaurant right around the corner and of course, we ate out on the patio. Anytime our family can eat outside, we definitely prefer it.

We ordered our breakfast and then LeRoy, Eli, and Israel went for a walk while waiting for the food. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is in the background, the church's bombed-out ruins are left as a memorial to the destruction of World War II.

While we ate our breakfast, the church bells rang several times, the melodic clang resounding throughout the area -- a music our family never tires of hearing!

We chuckled at these three men who sat on the patio drinking their morning beer.

A typical German breakfast platter of varying meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruit, and hard boiled eggs. Oh, and bröchen (German hard rolls)! And... yummy coffee mit Milch und Zucker (with milk and sugar). The children drank hot chocolate.

Yes, that's Zae "cheerfully" finishing up a math assignment! smile. (I like how this homeschool stuff travels with us! ...Though I'm not sure the children find it so amusing.)

We finally arrived at the Berlin Zoo and proceeded to the Rhino section...

...where Zeke's glasses fell off his face and landed in the rhino's "cage."

Eli feeding a goat in the petting section.

Not everyone can tolerate goat or llama slobber!

The Berlin Zoo has the dreamiest playground! Okay, my boys called it awesome. I tried to get several pictures of it from different angles. It's the kind of playground we always dreamed of building in our backyard.

This tire swing had four swings that almost met in the middle. So the four boys tried to do just that. I think they made their "swings" "meet" a couple of times.

Eli, Zeke, and Zae with a fellow rider behind Eli got this "dragon" rope swing going so high that they ended up providing great entertainment to the row of parental bystanders.

That's not too far... just across an ocean and a continent...

The closest thing we've seen to this cool is in the Laxton's backyard!

With nothing to hold on to, one just jumps on and tries to keep from flying off by balancing!

Zeke's the one with the red jacket on; Israel has white pants and a pink shirt; and Zae and Eli are standing up "surfing." Things got really fun when a Dad spun the disc!

Famous Knut (pronounced K-newt)!

We thought of you, Diane, and wished so much you were with us! You would have loved it!

Knut is extremely playful. We were all impressed with his loooong attention span as we waited and waited for him to do something other than pick that gunney sack up, throw it, catch it, cuddle it, bite it, and shake it around. We grew tired of waiting, (evidently our attention spans aren't as long as a young polar bear's), and moved on.

This lion paced back and forth, his roar echoing throughout the lion house. It was awesome. And... our whole family agreed he looked and acted like Eli.

Another picture of the playground! With some small additions here and there, Laxton's will probably have one nearly equal. I had to take lots of pictures because, you see, one day LeRoy and I, (if we ever settle down), dream of building one of these in our backyard for ourselves, uh, I mean, our grandchildren.

After many hours at the zoo we walked through the 400-acre park called the Tiergarten, which reminded us in so many ways of Riverfront Park in Spokane, Washington. We walked and walked and walked and just when we were beginning to wonder what kind of walk we had signed up for exactly, we left the park, headed southeast, and came to this piece of Berlin Wall that is left standing. Incredible!

I'll never forget my senior year of high school, the footage of the wall "coming down." Liberation at last! I remember it was such an emotional time. And now here we stood, this symbol of oppression, still standing as a memorial.

We walked slowly along the wall, looking at the pictures, trying our best to explain this time in history to the children. They call this stretch of wall the Topography of Terror, the site of Hitler's command center for the Gestapo and SS.

The Iron Curtain


Then we visited the Jewish Museum which took us on a historical journey from the time when God named the Jews His chosen people to present day.

This particular room is enclosed in concrete walls with over a thousand metal faces on the floor. The museum intends for the visitor to walk on these faces. In the picture above, I caught Zae on camera just as he had picked up one of the faces to look at it. How can I find words to explain the depth of emotion that took place as we considered the different interpretations that each of us felt? I would soon find out that there would be several experiences on this trip that will take the rest of my life to try to find words to put with the intensity of the emotions we felt.

Eli standing in the room full of metal faces. An eery hollow metal clank echoes with every step.

This entire museum invites the visitor to interpret the symbolisms at every turn. A fabulous experience for our family, "What do you think this means?" Here the boys stand at the top of a staircase ending at a wall. They were so confused until we started asking questions about meaning, symbolism, and metaphors. With this particular one we thought of "hope deferred."

After spending all day on our feet, the metro train was necessary for the trip back to our van. We're not sure how many miles we walked, but we're pretty sure it was a lot. As we exited the train, the children said they felt like they were suddenly in Chronicles of Narnia. It did sorta seem like it, the announcer's voice over the intercom, the trains coming and going, their rhythmic whoosh harmonizing with weary end-of-the-day traveller's voices. We call these "movie moments."

We got to the van, chose one of the three hotels I had written down before leaving home, and travelled the five blocks to see if they had any room at the inn. They did.

Through experience, we learned that it's best if I go into the lobby alone to negotiate a room(s). For some reason, an audible "we have six" as opposed to the visual "yes, there are six of us" seems to not overwhelm the receptionist so much. This particular receptionist paused, her eyes glancing over the top of her reading glasses, "Six of you?" I smiled and nodded. At this point I always struggle with the temptation to give a litany of all their wonderful personality traits -- something like reading an ad about puppies for sale. I almost say, "They're all house-broke," but then I bite my tongue hoping she's persuaded by my all-too-enthusiastic-smile instead. There's the usual deep gutteral, "Ackgh!" as she consults the ledger in front of her again. At last she looks up and says, "Okay, it is no problem." She pushes a receipt across the desk and puts a pen in my hand, "A nice breakfast is included. We serve from eight o'clock until ten o'clock. I will show you to your room. Follow me."

There is the flurry of bodies grabbing backpacks and bags, some blankets, and an extra pillow or two just in case. I put on my most threatening (really, desperate is more like it), face and whisper to the children on the way in, "Make them glad we came, not gl..."

"We know!" the children whisper back. And then, in unison, "...not glad to see us go!" We file in through the front door, me praying that these little angels remember what that even means! We follow this optimistic woman, (anyone is optimistic if after encountering the six of us, they simply proceed to show us to our room instead of changing their minds and locking the door after showing us out first), up three flights of stairs and down a long narrow hallway where she unlocks the door to a room with four beds... and a private bathroom! Yahoo! So Israel sleeps with Mama and the two younger boys double up. (We'll do this for as long as possible. smile.)

The water pressure in the showers are always intense, which we feel totally spoiled by. And the breakfast was a huge buffet which included all the fun perks including cold cereal, (all cold cereal in Germany is corn flakes no matter what kind of cereal it is), yogurt, granola, orange juice, and hot chocolate (which is real cocoa that you add milk and sugar to). So we felt especially grateful and spoiled!

Eventually, we packed everything up in the van, paid our bill, and set off for the #100 bus (per Rick Steve's tour guide). This bread was for sale in the open market in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. I included this picture because this is sooo typical of Germany!!

As we drove through town, I read out of the Rick Steve's guide book about the different sites we were passing. We've found this works rather well! And I don't mind playing tour guide, either. Well, I didn't mind until the children told me I sounded "just like Rick Steve's!" Not that that's a bad thing, mind you, it's just that I was hoping to add my own "flavor" to the tour. Perhaps it's time I start writing my own script for these journeys! Anyway...

Here's Eli standing in front of the Reichstag Building (the parliament building). We didn't get to go up into the glass cupola -- see the line of people? We missed the part in the Rick Steve's guidebook that told us to be here before 9AM. Oh well, next time.

We ventured onto the next thing which was this memorial to the 96 politicians who disagreed with Chancellor Hitler's politics as he came into power. The guide book reads, "These were the people who could have stopped Hitler... so they became his first victims." The slate slabs have the name of the man, the party he represented, and his date and place of death -- mostly in concentration camps.

We continued our walking tour to the Brandenburg Gate. See the brick line going across the picture horizontally from side to side? This is the path of the original "Iron Curtain."

We crossed the street and walked through the pillars of the Brandenburg Gate reading from the guidebook that this was known at one time as "the death strip." I know. We were trying to take it all in, too.

When we got to the other side we stood in the middle of what is called "Pariser Platz" (Paris Square). This is where I experienced probably the most profound moment of our entire visit to Berlin -- at least for me. You see, there were these two soldiers, one a German and the other American, each holding his respective flag. They were getting ready for some kind of photo shoot. But for me, I stood quietly watching, a rush of emotion coursing through every cell of my being.

It was Memorial Day -- at least in America. I can't tell you how many Memorial Weekends I spent, traipsing through the North Logan Cemetary, bundles of miniature American flags in both of my hands, while my grandpa consulted the cemetary plot map and instructed me where to insert a flag on the graves of veterans. It was long, arduous work and I remember feeling bored and weary. Yet, he was relentless. "Every soldier must be honored, Sharon," he'd tell me, moving to the next grave and pointing -- my cue to put a flag next to it. We kept on. Then Sunday came.

I remember being at the cemetary office with him where families of soldiers whose "grave had been missed" would show up to complain. My grandpa was gentle, kind, sympathetic as he reached for a flag, his hand on my shoulder, while we walked to the grave site with the family. All the way he would ask about the family member being honored, asking questions about their service to our country, at last kneeling to put a flag near the grave, then shaking hands with the family, thanking them for their sacrifice. I was young, but this memory will be with me for my whole life.

Now here I was standing on the other side of the "death strip" near an American soldier, American flag in his left hand, on Memorial Day. My grandpa was in Germany toward the end of World War II, during Europe's liberation from the tyranny that persecuted so many. Although I didn't get to hear many stories from that time in my grandpa's life, this moment felt powerful to me.

I tried to explain what I was thinking and feeling to my family, but no words aptly described the intensity. So I mostly stood there taking it all in, pondering everything, while my cute family found themselves thoroughly entertained by the hussle and bussle of the Square.

This is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe -- 2,711 gravestone-like pillars that act as a sort of labyrinth once one meanders into the middle of them. It's completely disorienting. In fact... spite of mine and LeRoy's warning, shortly after this picture was taken, the children were running in and out of the pillars... and we lost Zeke... or he lost us... or whatever... but he was really lost and after some moments of mild panic, the on-sight gaurd helped us find him. He had accidentally ended up at the corner opposite of us! Talk about a sigh of relief upon seeing him walk toward us!!

Suddenly, we realized we had a very short time to get back to our vehicle before the parking meter ran out. We ran back toward the Reichstag Building and promptly proceeded to get on a bus... going the opposite direction we needed to go in!

So, we got to see a whole lot more of Berlin than we thought we would get to see! And... eventually we ended up back at our van, (though we ran the last five blocks... smile).

Next stop: Elim Christian Center in POLAND.

To be continued.

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