Leaving Wittenberg after a European breakfast of assorted cheeses, Nuremberg sausage, fruit, danishes, croissants, tea and coffee, we drove through the German countryside near Potsdam on our way to Berlin. Crisp asphalt lanes lined with white wooden posts streamed past our periphery like toppled bowling pins and leafy hardwood trees formed a canopy over our pastoral highway as we wove artfully along elegant curves admiring the gold fields, the green meadows and tall grasses tipped with delicate violet blooms.
Occasionally, road signs warned of impact with the neighborly trees, the image of a broken car against the immovable force of nature tempering my need to speed more effectively than a speed limit.
But still, the six speed Audi surged, longing to feel the centrifugal force of these beautiful curves like a sixteen year old lad on a first date, while my eyes spoke to my feet telling them to relax and enjoy the beauty of a summer day softened by a cool seventy degree breeze.
The windows opened and I imagined this was no Audi, but a Porsche, restrained power reserved for another time, for now allocated to a leisurely pace broken only by side tours of old stone churches with steeples rising over the red tile roofs of townscapes like fingers pointing home.
We parked the gray Audi northeast of Berlin at
Vehlefanz train station and climbed to the platform preparing to ride twenty miles into the center of Berlin.
We visited the Brandenburg gate and sought refuge from a summer rain at a diner filled with British tourists. Berlin has the same melting pot feel and diversity of New York City.
Then, pretzels from a street vendor, some with white cheese and some with salt, a five minute walk to the Central train station, passing the Reichstag (parliament) building.
The Berlin Wall is covered in brilliant and dark art, graffiti, handprints, names, cartoons, it is the cultural and creative canvas of a broken city and country divided virtually overnight by barbed wire and masonry. Now it seems to be the expression of unchained humanity, of community longing for the connection of sameness while embracing the uniqueness of self.
Berlin bathrooms are adventures, as in all of Germany. More technically advanced and efficient plumbing fixtures, but few were free. We spent twenty euros on toll booths to bathrooms, zero euros on highway tolls.
Speaking of highways, if every American could drive the autobahn as a prerequisite to a drivers license, our interstates would be much safer. There is a gorgeous constant stream of deferring right, right, right…never left, I loved it. Average cruising was about 150-160 kph, but I’m not telling my top speed.
A week ago we strolled the streets of Hamburg and my son pointed to several bronze medallions embedded in sidewalks near the front porches of residences, the names of Jews taken from that home, murdered, because they were so presumptuous to be born Jewish. We only see their name and dates, their tenure on earth, and we feel some general sympathy, but nothing specific, because we never knew them, never hugged them, never saw them as they were. Folks fishing and sailing in lake Alster, bakery chefs, cafe owners, bus drivers, teachers. What if that bronze medallion was etched with the name of my son? Would I hate them?
My daughter Lauren sat next to me on one of many train rides in Berlin and she said, “I never really knew why people hated them.” “Hated whom?”, I replied. “The Jews.” I asked her, “Why did they hate them?” “They were smart and rich,” she answered. I didn’t have a response so I sat looking at Berlin pass by out the train window.
Maybe I should have said that they didn’t eat pork either. That night we ate pig, again, at Sweinskies,
the “Chili’s of Germany”, as my son phrased it, as we had done seven straight days, pork and pretzels and kraut. It was the moment I realized that we were in a Gentile country, just like in the Bible. Gentiles are the people who have no identity other than the nature of what they are not, not Jewish, like me.
I’m part Cherokee, part German, a European Gentile born in Oklahoma,
who has no clue who these people are, Germans and Jews, sons and daughters on medallions poured into Hamburg sidewalks, young artists painting their souls onto a partly torn iron curtain, amazingly bright people with brilliant systems and ways looking to a future that’s sculpted by a past they try to forget, yet still remember.
I write because I live, and I live because I write. Not because I want people to read this, but because it helps me see and connect and love other folks, Germans and Jews, artists and pragmatists, the plain and the sublime, even Okies and Texans. And as my brother once said, “I write when I’m well, and I’m weller when I write.”
Thanks for coming along on our vacation. It was amazing. Special thanks to my son Brandon, in whom I see myself sometimes which gives me pause, and in whom I see a bright, passionate, wonderful young man still becoming a meteorologist and a good man in ways beyond my development at his age.
He was our German translator and patient guide by way of autobahns and trains, churches and alleys, streets and subways in a beautiful, complex, fascinating land called Deutschland.