The Oregon Trail: 21st Century version

While in Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful humans who also happen to be teachers. Two of them gave up an entire day to take me through the dirt roads of central Wyoming so I could experience the Oregon Trail in the same way the original Pioneers and the freshmen of Natrona County High School did/do. Rather, I should say, using the same route. My method of transportation was an air-conditioned car, rather than my feet, a covered wagon, or a hand cart!

Previously, we had driven by Fort Caspar, the former Platte Bridge Station, and heard the stories of this important site. The morning of our excursion, we started at Bessemer Bend, where one of the Mormon Ferry crossings was located in the late 1840s/early 1850s. In the first several years Mormons were venturing across the overland trail, Brigham Young decided to keep a convoy near Casper to run a ferry across the North Platte River; it was thought to be the first commercial ferry on the river. The iron ore-filled hillsides that give both Red Buttes and Bessemer Bend their names were also the location of the Battle of Red Buttes, which was a significant conflict between settlers and native populations during the 1860s.

Next on the trail was Willow Springs, the site of the first fresh water along the trail since Bessemer Bend, 25 miles earlier. Many who passed through on the Trail remarked about the importance of this site in their diaries. The lone tree at the site (and for miles around) has since been struck by lightning, but the foundation of the Pony Express station, that was turned into a telegraph station after the Pony Express went defunct, and the remains of the tree are still at the site. The water is also still apparently drinkable, though we didn’t test it out.

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The foundations of the Pony Express stop-turned telegraph station and the remains of the cottonwood that was struck by lightning.

Not too far beyond Willow Springs is Prospect Hill. Its elevation rises 400 feet in the span of a mile, and was a very difficult portion of the trail (which NC teachers make their students walk!), though pioneers and students alike were rewarded with quite a view. It is the highest point on this part of the Trail, and one from which you can see Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and the Sweetwater Valley.  Wheel ruts can be seen so clearly here that you can almost imagine the wagons rumbling by., struggling to make it up Prospect Hill. Though there are only four interpretive signs put up by the Bureau of Land Management at the top of the Hill, this is a site definitely worth stopping at and walking around for a while.

“Before us is stretched out the long ranges …” diarist John F. Snyder wrote on June 7, 1850. “Gazing on this scene,” he continued, “I was forcibly reminded of [poet Thomas] Campbell’s

‘As yon summits, soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air;
But to those who journey near
Barren, brown and rough appear.’

… Descending ‘Prospect Hill’ by another long, inclined route,” he concluded, “we slowly continued our march through heavy sand.”

Our last stop on the Trail for the day was Independence Rock. Supposedly the destination Pioneers needed to reach before July 4th to make it to the Dalles before winter fell, Independence Rock is an important landmark on the actual trail and in the game. It is a massive sight to behold, and we were able to climb it, and walk across it that afternoon, which took about 20 minutes. Still visible are some of the initials and names of the Pioneers who reached the rock 170+ years ago. The Sweetwater River was high while we were there, so part of the area was flooded, but it made for some pretty cool photos.

My last Oregon Trail stop on the road trip was en route while I was driving from Salt Lake City to Sioux City, Iowa. I stopped briefly at Fort Bridger after the interpreters had left for the day, but the grounds were still open. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez established this trading post in the early 1840s to service the trails that came through the area. He also established the first school in Wyoming for his children, who lived with him at the Fort for a while.

And the Pièce De Résistance: my last Wyoming Sunset around 9:30p, and my last Wyoming sunrise, only 7 hours later! Driving across the state of Nebraska was torturous, but at least I had that sunrise to start my day.

If you’re driving through central Wyoming, and aren’t lucky enough to have personal tour guides, the Casper paper put together an easy-to-follow, do-it-yourself Oregon Trail tour. The National park Service has also put together a more extensive 84-page Auto Tour Guide that covers all three Trails: Oregon, California, and Mormon,  as they wind through Wyoming. Check them out!

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WY not? Wyoming beauty that ISN’T Yellowstone or the Tetons

I had never been to Wyoming. I can’t say that I had any particular desire to go to Wyoming, and on this trip, I even completely avoided the several things that EVERYONE knows Wyoming for–Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons (another trip for another summer!). BUT, the few things I was able to experience in my several days were awesome, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience natural wonders and historic sites in the Cowboy State (…or the Equality State. I think Cowboy is more fitting).

My Wyoming adventure started out with a journey to Devils Tower. I really can’t adequately show you in photos how beautiful the setting is, and I certainly can’t convey how spiritual the experience and the environs were. A sacred place to many plains Indians, Bear Lodge, as it is known by native tribes, helped me feel more connected to nature and Mother Earth than I had been in a while. It’s not the best known highlight of Wyoming, but it is definitely worth a stop! Enjoy some photos of the brilliant blue skies and incredible landscapes that surround Devils Tower.

The Oregon Trail deserves a post of its own, so that will be coming–Devils Tower was such a fun adventure to begin my experience in Wyoming!

Travel in an Age of Terror

The makeshift memorial to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in front of the American Embassy in Berlin.

Written 3/4 June 2017

Tonight, there were three separate incidents in London. What began with London Bridge soon made its way to the Borough Market, and before we knew it, the Vauxhall area was in danger too. Though it quickly became apparent Vauxhall wasn’t a terror-related incident though the others appear to be, three acts of violence were committed in the capital of the United Kingdom last night.

And two days ago, there was a terror attack in Kabul, Afghanistan that no organization has claimed, as of yet. It got news coverage, for sure, but it seemed to be a passing piece of news in a region of the world where we expect those things to happen. There are plenty of examples that compare the coverage and treatment of terror incidents in western countries with countries elsewhere (linked articles are just several among many, both liberal and conservative sources), but from here, a week removed from an attack at a concert in Manchester, four days after an attack in Baghdad, and only 72 hours following an attack in Kabul, this article about the varying coverage between western and non-western terror attacks from the am hours of June 3rd, before the attacks in London, seems especially prescient right now.

How do we reconcile these incidents? On a broader level, I struggle constantly with how to prioritize what to teach my kids. Is it what is required by Minnesota statute, or is it a more comprehensive understanding of the world we live in? Is it the information that will be most proximate to their daily lives, or is it what will actually help develop a broader perspective of the world, one in which an attack in Afghanistan is equally important to an attack in England? How do we keep kids from developing preconceived notions of large populations of people, based on the actions of a few, if adults with fully developed prefrontal cortexes (and significantly large amounts of power and influence) can’t seem to do the same?

Plenty of rational, thinking people I know are less comfortable traveling today than they ever have been. They don’t want to risk the possibility of something happening while they’re abroad. I certainly can’t tell them they’re wrong to feel that way, and it doesn’t really comfort anyone to think that it could happen in the nearest American metropolis just as easily as it could happen in a major European capital. So, what do we do?

I don’t have many answers, but I have more questions by the day. How can I simultaneously desire to help kids learn about and experience the world, and live in a world that kids feel less safe in by the day? How do I try to embody tolerance and acceptance while teaching about current events that seem to stem from intolerance and non-acceptance of those different from ourselves? Most importantly, how can we live in and raise children in a world where things are becoming more peaceful and tolerant, and not more dangerous and more closed-off?

 

(Approximately) 1072 Reasons to Study Abroad during College

I just got back from my study abroad reunion in Rome. A week spent in Rome with people I met a decade ago during my first experience abroad, in one of my favorite cities in the world. It was more than enough motivation for me to create an ode to studying abroad, and reminded me to continue to work daily to convince the young people I know to experience this incredible opportunity. So here goes:

  1. Studying abroad allows you to experience international travel in a way that is safe and supported. Especially if it’s your first time abroad, this creates a level of comfort for you (and likely your parents) that will make the unknown a little less threatening.
  2. You’ll discover more about yourself in that time period than you would imagine is possible. Not only more about your personal likes and dislikes, tolerances and intolerances, but your travel habits, communication style, friendship-building capacities, how you spend and budget money, what is important to take from your travels, and lots of other abilities you didn’t know you had or could develop.
  3. Integrating yourself into a different language and culture is the best way to learn either; choose to really engage in the place, and the benefits are limitless.
  4. You can make friends from all over the world who will love for you to come back and visit for decades to come.
  5. Your (adopted) home city will likely be a great jumping-off point for other travels around the region or continent you’re in–independent or group travel is much easier with budget airlines and rail systems that are much more extensive than at home.
  6. Adapting to daily routines outside of your own helps you become more flexible and tolerant, not only when you’re traveling, but when you get home also.
  7. You’ll likely experience a wide variety of new foods, and you may gain some new favorites to take home with you as go-to comfort food that will evoke instant memories of your trip abroad. It’ll also give you a reason to go try new ethnic restaurants at home, if you’ve discovered a love for moussaka, arepas, or shawarma while you were abroad, and want to expand your gastronomic experiences.
  8. You’ll gain skills that will help you post-college. You’re more marketable as a prospective employee with language skills, a proven track-record of taking on new challenges, or the worldliness that comes with experiences outside of the US.
  9. You’ll wow your friends and family with the skills you’ve gained while abroad. The first time I traveled with my parents after my study abroad trip, they couldn’t believe how assertive and proactive I was, and how easily I could navigate new cities and public transportation. I certainly wouldn’t have been equipped to help them travel more easily, if I hadn’t been given the chance to figure it all out during my semester abroad.
  10. If you choose to “disconnect” from technology to some degree while you’re abroad (by choice or necessity), you’ll discover that life without smartphones, though more difficult, can be more fulfilling. I studied abroad before smart phones existed, and I’m certain I had a better, more adventurous experience as a result. I also rediscover this every time I travel, and rely less on social media when I get home.
  11. You’ll discover things about your home and home life that you will come to appreciate more when you get back. It’ll help you realize how important some relationships are, and maybe help you understand some that aren’t.
  12. You’ll think about the world differently; knowing people and places different from your regular help you on your way to becoming a global citizen.
  13. You may be inspired to attend grad school abroad and continue your international education; especially in central and northern European countries, you may even get to go for free!
  14. You have time to truly get to know a city; the best discoveries are made when wandering aimlessly or walking to class, not usually when walking from one tourist site to another.
  15. With the diversity of programs available at many universities, you can continue a more traditional course of study OR take classes unrelated to your major; both will enrich you beyond belief.
  16. There are SO many places around the world to study, and so many types of programs, there is actually something for everyone. Want to study zoology? Ancient languages? Native cultures? Mechanical engineering? Literature? ALL can be done through one program or another, and through the lens of another language, culture, perspective, etc.
  17. There are lots of opportunities to study abroad for the same or nearly the same cost as a semester at school would normally cost. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t afford it; there are so many ways to make sure you can!
  18. You are not likely to have fewer responsibilities, more freedom, or more opportunities than you do in your undergraduate studies. Do it while you can, or you may have to wait until your retire to feel like you have the time again!
  19. Wanderlust is real, and once the travel bug bites, you’ll be doomed to a life of exploration, expanding your horizons, and experiencing new people and cultures.
  20. – 1072. You’ll see and do remarkable things, be better prepared for the world post-college, and you’ll make lifelong friends along the way. This is exactly what college should be about. 

Take these to heart, and go forth, and set the world on fire!

MC Lean

Global Gratitude, part II: back on solid ‘Merican ground.

So, this post rounds out Eurotrip 2016. I’m grateful for the chance to chronicle my experiences this way, and in a few years, when names and places are escaping me, I’m glad I’ll have this lengthy, delayed, though hopefully *mildly* thoughtful account of an incredible few weeks. I can’t quite thank the Goethe-Institute or the people at the Transatlantic Outreach Program, Deutsche Bank, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Siemens, and the German Foreign Office, enough for the opportunity not only for two weeks in Germany, but for enabling a continuation of my trip, allowing me to see two new cities, and return to one of my favorites. My kids and I will benefit from the experiences I gained in these short weeks for the rest of my teaching career, and certainly I will for the remainder of my days.

Of course, as I’m a millennial, after I got coffee, the next thing I did when I got back on US soil was update facebook. Don’t ask why. I can’t explain the human compulsion to chronicle life via social media, but I willingly participate. Here are my immediate thoughts upon landing in Detroit:

11 July, Detroit Airport

“Back on solid ‘Merican ground. Gratitude is oozing out of me as I reflect on the past four weeks, so why not start sharing it now? In no particular order, I am especially grateful for…
1. A funny, engaging German seat mate named Rudy who kept the wine and the conversation flowing
2. Live piano and a Caribou in the Detroit airport
3. Snarky, clever British flight attendants who DO NOT like being accused of sounding a little bit Irish, thankyouverymuch…
4. Seeing American men in baseball hats as soon as we got into the airport (superficial I know…so sue me!)
5. The incredible people I met and the incredible places I visited in just over three weeks in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

What a gift to love the place I’m coming home to just as much as the places I’ve been.”


I cannot overstate the importance of this particular trip in helping remind me why I do what I do, and am becoming who I am becoming. The two week immersive learning experience exceeded my expectations in ways I can’t describe, but the 11 days that followed were self-indulgent, freeing, enlightening, and reassuring. 


My first Christmas back home after my study abroad experience, my mom got me a gift that has remained incredibly profound in my daily life, though I don’t know that I’ve actually told her that. It was just a piece of card stock, about the size of a business card, with a quote that I didn’t fully understand the value of then.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

Mary Anne Radmacher

How true it was then, and remains to be. London and central Italy await…and I can’t wait to head back to where it all started. Roma; non basta una vita.

 

MC Lean

Ich Liebe Österreich

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The Hills are Aliiiiiiiiiiiive…

All I needed from Salzburg was another Sound of Music Tour, and the end of my Eurotrip would have been wonderfully complete. What I got instead was a hike up a mountain, an incredible view from the top, a European castle with trick fountains, a boat tour of the city, and walks along the Salzach that made me feel like Maria, ready to break into song at any moment.

I decided to return to Salzburg, as my last addition to my time after our group tour. I wasn’t sure that I wanted five days in Prague or Vienna (right on one count, and NOT on the other!), so I knew that I would enjoy Salzburg as a finale. I had been to Salzburg before, as a young, impressionable 21 year old. I enjoyed the city, but really came for the Sound of Music Tour. Not really knowing what to do with our time, we also went to see the Eisreisenwelt ice caves about an hour outside the city. Beyond those two adventures, I don’t recall much else that we did in those three days. This time around, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful countryside that surrounds Salzburg, and was much less afraid of venturing outside the city center on public transit I wasn’t sure how to navigate.

But first, the highlights from the best tour in Europe:

 

Other highlights from my few days were my tram and hike up the Untersberg, my mini-Maria photo shoot at the top, the trick fountains at Hellbrunn palace, wandering around the city, eating an enormous pretzel that served as an entire meal, msuci festivals popping up all over the city, and a boat tour of the Salzach. I was living and loving life in Salzburg, and can’t wait to get back!

A couple Salzburg travel tips:

  • Get the Salzburg Card if you’re planning to do even a couple touristy things. I got the 48 hour version, and it allowed me to do several things I was already planning to do, and also encouraged me to do several things I wouldn’t have done if I had to pay for them individually. It also allows you to use all city public transportation for the duration of your card.
  • If you’re at all a fan of the movie or of film nostalgia, GO ON THE SOUND OF MUSIC TOUR. I was apparently a little too enthusiastic about it, because while I was talking to the person selling me the ticket, I convinced a Brit and his Chinese wife (both of whom hadn’t seen the movie) to join us. They loved it, and went to watch the movie as soon as we got back!
  • If by this point in your trip, you’ve had enough sausages and sauerkraut, Salzburg has really great international cuisine. I stopped at a burger shop, which had vegetarian and vegan options, in addition to traditional (and non-traditional) burgers. There was a great-looking Chinese restaurant, great (authentic) Italian, and Indian cuisine just down the street.
  • Birkenstocks are truly solid footwear that I would suggest all travelers consider investing in. I didn’t bring tennis shoes on this trip, and I climbed an actual mountain in my birks. The Germans make footwear ready for the Alps.
  • Salzburg warrants a several-days-long stay of its own, but it’s also relatively close to Munich and Passau (of Danube river-cruising fame). If you’re in either place, think about making a day trip or a short weekend out of Salzburg. You won’t regret it!
  • Thus far, I’ve only been to Salzburg and Vienna, but Austria is on my list of incredible countries (not just cities) to visit. I’m looking forward to more and more exploration of Austria in coming trips!

Safe travels, MC Lean

 

Vienna has my heart.

I knew so little about Vienna before I got there it was almost criminal. I knew the Habsburgs were important. I knew about the Opera house, and I knew that Rick Steves loves Vienna. If I’m being honest, the last reason alone was enough to get me there, but man, was I in for a treat. While in the city of music, I discovered SO MUCH MORE to love about the former seat of a powerful empire, and the cultural hub of Europe.

To start, knowing as little as I did, I followed a TripAdvisor “Three Days in Vienna” itinerary. The Ringstraße, or ring road, circles the city. My hotel was outside of it, so getting to Ringstraße, and following it became my initial method of navigating the city. My first stop was the Winterpalais, per the itinerary’s suggestion, and what I found upon my arrival left a bit to be desired. Their exhibition at the time was modern art, and the art found in various rooms included a Bud Light box, a display of assault rifles made out of metal pipe, and stuffed sock monkeys. The palace was beautiful. The exhibit was something else. I decided after that experience I would just walk and see the city for the remainder of the day.

I made it a priority to find the cakes that Vienna is famous for, making my first choice the Sachertorte, a Viennese specialty made of dense chocolate cake and a thin layer of apricot jam, that is covered in dark chocolate icing. I stopped at the less touristy location of Konditorei Heiner, on Wollzeile, instead of the location on the main shopping thoroughfare of Kaerntnerstraße. I might have gone back the next day to try the other cake the woman helping me suggested, where I also happened to meet a lovely woman from Pittsburgh who had lived in Vienna for the last 20 years. Good conversation always enhances good dessert. I also had the chance to stop at the famous Café Sperl and enjoy a Sperltorte. Kaffee und Kuchen is a tradition I can definitely get behind. It’s a good thing I was only in Vienna for three days!

I also spent most of a day at Schloss Schönbrunn, exploring the beauty of the Imperial Palace and gardens. It was a busy day at the Palace, full of large tourist groups, but it was definitely worth the time and energy to get there and endure the crowds. I could have spent all day in the gardens, if there wasn’t so much else to see and do in Vienna!

I wandered through south Vienna for the rest of my second day, found a little bit of hipster Wien that reminded me of the Lyn-Lake area of Minneapolis, and finished my adventures at Silberwirt. I had a delicious Tuscany Cordon Bleu filled with Parma ham, mozzarella and basil, breaded in sunflower seeds. Hands down, it was the best meal of my trip; the setting of Silberwirt’s garden in their courtyard was perfect, John Legend happened to be my dinner companion, and the concern and care my waiter showed me made the night even more lovely. The Austrian people have been nothing but kind and caring in my several experiences in Salzburg and Vienna.

Other reasons to love Vienna:

  • The Kunsthistorisches Museum is incredible–not only do they have a huge amount of art from the Habsburgs, while I was there, they had an exhibit on photographs taken in Egypt in the early 1900s, so while experiencing Greek, Roman, Habsburg, and global history otherwise, I could also revisit one of my favorite travel experiences.
  • It has craft beer stores, where I found Surly. Beer that’s produced 10 miles from my house is available in Vienna. Though I always try to stick to local brews when traveling, my affinity for Vienna grew exponentially with this discovery.
  • It has some of the best street food–if you’re not sick of sausage, stop at Bitzinger Wurstelstand Albertina right across from the Opera House. I had the käsekrainer–a cheese sausage inside a delicious, crusty piece of bread. Keep in mind, if you’re trying to be a good guest in Austria (or Germany for that matter), don’t offend them by putting ketchup on your sausage!
  • The Viennese Opera is world-famous. If you can’t get tickets (which you should try to do), they’ve started live-streaming the shows outside the Opera House. Pick up some quick dinner across the street (see above!) and enjoy the Opera outdoors.
  • It is also an incredibly progressive city–there was a change several years ago to make the Ampelmännchen more representative of modern Austrian society. The change was supposed to be temporary, but as of July, they were still there, as public symbols of tolerance for all to see.

I can’t wait to get back to Vienna, and experience everything else the city has to offer. I’ll definitely plan for more than three days next time!

MC Lean

Praha, in Czechia

A little aside before I begin: If you’ve been reading from the start (hi mom! 🙂 ), you may or may not remember me mentioning the “nickname” or shortened name the Czech Republic had decided to start emphasizing earlier last year. Turns out…very few people are using Czechia. [edit: I received an email from a gracious reader in Switzerland (!!) who informed me that google maps is already, in fact using the name Czechia. The reader is a member of the “Civic Initiative Czechia” (Občanská iniciativa Česko) that is working to mainstream the name that has roots in the Bohemian and Moravian history of the nation. He pointed out, very rightly, that it will certainly take time to get the name more mainstream, but it seems it is definitely gaining steam.]

I had high hopes for Prague. I had heard wonderful things from several friends, one of whom says it’s his favorite city in the world, and I had wanted to go for quite some time. It is a beautiful, historic city, and parts of my experience were thoroughly enjoyable, but in my short time there, it never really felt like a city I could fall in love with. However, there were some definite highlights: the free walking tours I took were great, and Prague Castle (and the monastery’s restaurant just outside the castle complex) are definitely worth a stop. I had some really interesting food, and some delicious beer (that in some cases is actually cheaper than water), and the weather could not have been more perfect for my time in Praha.

My most favorite part of Prague was its Jewish history walking tour. The one I took was self-guided, and included visits to several Synagogues, a few museums, and the Jewish cemetery in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Had I planned better, I would have also gone to Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), especially after I learned so much about the significance of that particular labor camp during World War II. I would definitely suggest a visit there, as it provides incredible (often missing) context for the Second World War, and the Jewish experience outside of Germany.

Prague seemed like a really little “big” city–or a really big “little” city–with its historic center compact and wonderfully walkable. It’s been the backdrop to many movies set in Europe, and partially as a result, it has been touched by western commercialism and consumerism, and not in a fantastic way. Economically, I understand the need for it, but I ended up in a mall that would unrecognizable from an American mall on more than one occasion. I had the opportunity to shop in pretty mainstream European stores more in Prague than I did in the rest of my solo trip combined–certainly avoidable, but as I love to wander, it was an unfortunate side-effect of my methods. When I go to Prague again, I’d take a few day trips outside of the city, to Terezin, and to Český Krumlov, a castle that is an hour or so outside of Prague. Nevertheless, everyone who is interested in important history, beautiful architecture, good food and drink, and seeing parts of the world they haven’t before, should go to Prague, and decide for themselves–I’m sure there are really appealing parts of the city that I missed out on.

Tell me what I missed–let me know what fantastic Prague attractions I neglected, or some Czech experience that I didn’t partake in that would have made the trip for me–I’m sure there are some out there!

I was fortunate, however, to find a little piece of Americana in Prague, as I was there over the 4th of July. A jazz club right off Wenceslas Square was having a night of American show tunes. If you know me at all, you know I love me some good old-fashioned musicals, and enjoying them while also honoring our Founders was an unexpectedly great way to commemorate the Declaration. It was as John Adams would have wanted.

On to Vienna, Austrian hospitality, and a return to the German language!

MC Lean

The Stasi Museum, data privacy, and yet another difference between Germany and the US

29 June, Berlin

Our third day in Berlin was actually spent largely outside of Berlin, at the Biosphärenreservat Schorfheide-Chorin, where we got to experience Germany’s outdoors at their finest. We met with youth rangers, and experienced some of the activities they do with German children who come to visit the nature preserve. We communed with nature, had an incredible lunch cooked in their outdoor kitchen, and got to decompress from city life and busy travel days.

One of the really reassuring things for me, just as homesickness was setting in, was experiencing landscapes that looked just like what I see at home. It all of a sudden made perfect sense that during the period of massive German immigration to the US in the middle of the 19th century, so many of those Germans came to the upper midwest in search of a new life. Turns out, it looked just like home. That had to be as comforting for them as it was for me this afternoon.

30 June, Stasi museum, East Berlin

Today was an incredible day, full of brain-stretching and challenges to our current expectations of human decency. We started the day listening to Dr. Thorsten Wetzling, a fellow from the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a think tank focused on how German politics and technology intersect. Dr. Wetzling took time to discuss security and data privacy in Europe with us. Not only was he incredibly fascinating, but it seems in our conversations afterward he also illustrated to the group of 15 of us just how little Americans know about data privacy, and for better or worse, how much we just trust that the right thing is being done for the most part.

One very insignificant, but illustrative example of this was our experience the first morning we were in Germany. One of our group members wasn’t in the lobby at our meeting time, and it seemed logical to all of us that we could just get the room number, and go knock on the door. Because of the importance of data privacy in Germany, the front desk staff wouldn’t give out the room number, even to our group leader, who was responsible for the entire reservation. Until put in historical context, this just seems like an inconvenience to Americans who lose hotel key cards and get new ones at the front desk without even verifying their identities. Germans are leery of allowing anyone access to information that could potentially compromise their safety and security. This is even evident to a much lesser extent in their public bathrooms. There is zero space between the door and the walls in German restrooms; no accidental peeping or feeling of slight discomfort in German toilets!

The incredible carefulness of most Europeans on the issue of data privacy is very clearly rooted in their own national and continental histories. After that meeting, we ventured to the Stasi Museum, which reinforced the importance of that context. The Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit were the secret police of the East German government, and the influence they wielded was incredible. Our tour guide at the museum talked fast and was an incredible storyteller with incredibly personal connections to the subject. About 10 minutes into our tour, I was thinking out loud, and said: “think about how much more we’d know if everyone talked this fast and passionately.” The museum, and our guide, were both incredible sights to behold.

Following the atrocities carried out by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, the Stasi ruled the lives of East Germans and those along the border during the Cold War. As with the gentleman we met at Point Alpha, who served as a West German guard along the border, the lives of those who were designated threats or even potentially connected to western, capitalist ideas were targets for psychological warfare. Schools indoctrinated students to believe that anyone who didn’t adhere strictly to the ideals and beliefs of the East German government was an anarchist bent on bringing down the fatherland. They created mobile units of solitary confinement, drove people around aimlessly to disorient them, randomly moved bicycles and cars from their designated spaces to make people think they were losing their minds, and pitted family members and neighbors against each other, in tests of loyalty and patriotism. The files the Stasi kept on DDR citizens have been opened, but many East Germans still don’t want to relive this incredibly painful, divisive era of their history.

Disgusting, immoral bottom line: if humans are intent on it, we can do incredibly damaging things to each other, without inflicting a bit of physical violence. Second moral of the story: if ever you’re in Berlin, make sure you stop at the Stasi museum.

Our fifth day was unplanned for the most part; some went to Sachsenhausen, some went to Museum Island, and I wandered the city, trying to plan a lesson and take in the city in whatever way it happened to unfold. Turns out getting stuck in an hours-long downpour was a part of the spontaneity of that day. Those of us who stayed an additional day also had the chance to watch the Euro Cup game in the Tiergarten, right in front of the Brandenburg Gate. As someone who’s not a fan of crowds, drunk people, or soccer, it was much better than I was anticipating. I could definitely see the excitement of enjoying soccer. I’m still not there yet, but much closer to potentially trying again…at some point…in the distant future.

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Praha awaits…stay tuned!

MC Lean

 

Berlin; Day 2

I apologize for the tardiness in keeping up with these posts; I figured that I should finish one adventure before I take on my next, so I’ll hopefully be more faithful in documenting the last weeks of our trip. This is all more for my own memory than anything else (…and also for the two family members who actually read this!), but if I can encourage even one person to do or see some of the things we had the chance to experience, it’ll be worth it.

28 June, Berlin

Our second full day in Berlin started with a wonderful surprise. Though I’m sure many of us had heard of “Cabaret” or read the Berlin Diaries, I had no idea prior to coming who Christopher Isherwood was, or why his tales were such an important part of Germany in the inter-War era. We took a walking tour of the neighborhood Isherwood experienced as an adult. We learned about Isherwood, his experiences as a gay male in Hitler’s Germany, the Schöneberg district of Berlin, and got to hear wonderfully-told stories that we may have never encountered otherwise. It was an incredible morning in the most unexpected of ways. If you’re interested in taking the tour, Brendan, a Brit expat, was a wonderful guide, and gives tours regularly.

We then had the chance to experience the Topography of Terror, which is a necessary stop for anyone who wants to feel the weight of life in Berlin during and after Hitler’s Germany. The documentary evidence of the Third Reich is incredibly moving and heavy; the remnants of the physical structure of the headquarters is eery, and the traveling exhibits they have are well done.

The remainder of the day was one of the most emotion-dense afternoons I’ve experienced. We had the incredible opportunity to hear about the experiences of Margot Friedlander. I’ve written about our experiences with Mrs. Friedlander before, because such an experience needs to be documented in numerous ways. The inhumanity and injustice of her experiences and the experiences of millions of others have weighed on me many times since, and it doesn’t get easier to understand. I think of what she shared with us on a near-daily basis, and often repeat the mantra she shared with us for living in the modern world:

“Be a mensch. Be a human. Be a thinking, feeling human being.”

We then got to experience the German people’s second favorite food–Italian– as we met with a representative of the federal foreign office for dinner. I enjoyed our conversations with someone so interested in our experiences and the education systems in the United States. It’s still incredible to me that the German government has made such a concerted effort (and financial investment) to help others encounter modern Germany. I’m grateful for the chance to have participated, and for the continual chances to relive it; here, in my classroom, on social media, and through the hundreds of photos and memories I took back home with me.

A really productive, thought-provoking day. One that will definitely be motivation to get back to Berlin soon!

MC Lean