Katy’s World

Pulling into Wampen, I wanted to know it in all its seasons, to see the nearby town of Neuenkirchen with its beautiful church, and to see the bigger city of Greifswald and its university, where Katy’s husband works. But we only had about 20 hours and then it was back to Berlin and a brief dive into a very complicated history. Mostly I wanted to feel her home, the sunniness, the dampness, the cool air. I wanted to fill up on the colors, the plants, and yes, the Baltic Sea. I imagined it cold and brooding, windswept and stormy, anything but placid. Basically, I wanted to gorge myself on the sensory buffet I had only sampled through Katy’s letters.

Well, that’s a lot to ask of a place, but Katy’s world did not disappoint. I can’t express the joy that welled up in my heart when I saw her beautiful face. Climbing out of the car, though, was a vine-y affair, as anything green there grows with a mad rush, and her driveway was lined with ground cover I didn’t want to crush. But what a joy to hug a dear, long-time friend. If only we could have something like that to look forward to more often.

Katy gave us a grand tour of her microcosm. One of her degrees is in botany and her brain is encyclopedic. Some people really know their surroundings, but Katy is on intimate terms with everything that grows, slithers, cackles, purrs, or hops. She’s my inspiration– it’s because of her that I own several books on flowers and growing zones. Because of Katy (and those field guides) I can look up unknown plants by their structure and flowerings. I’ll never be as good as her, but I sure like trying. She’s like science made human…more of that, please.

The tour included:

This handsome gent. Katy can tell the frogs apart by their habits.

This handsome gent. Katy can tell the frogs apart by their habits.

Katy's chickens, Monique and Gertrude.

Katy’s chickens, Monique and Gertrude.

Garden snails.

Garden snails.

A million tiny miracles across her yard.

A million tiny miracles across her yard.

I took a ridiculous amount of photos of bees, poppies, and the fields. After her husband came home and we had Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), we walked the half kilometer to the Baltic. It began to rain and we were thrilled. I’m sure the Baltic has its sunny days, but we were perfectly content with this:

Stormy scene...

Stormy scene…

...and clear jellyfish. Works for me!

…and clear jellyfish. Works for me!

That night we were blessed with a fabulous dinner, a quick tour of her front yard and green house (from which she gifted me with a perfect gerbera daisy), and an astounding sunset in Katy’s backyard:

2017-07-11 21.16.12 (1)

We talked late into the night. In the morning, Katy and I had a long talk over breakfast. When the girls and Joe got up, she told them one of my favorite stories: What it was like when the Wall came down. Katy was still living in Göttingen and I’ve saved all her letters from that time. She told the girls about how everyone–EVERYONE–was out out on the streets celebrating and welcoming the East Germans. She saw a West German grandma sticking chocolate bars under the windshield wipers of all the Trabbis (the East German “papier-mâché cars,” as Katy described them) on the streets. She saw an East German family staring at all the produce in the grocery stores. They were seeing stuff they’d never (ever) seen in the East for 20-some years. As they looked at an eggplant, their child asked them, “What is that, Mommy?” The mother didn’t know, and read the little sign, not even sure how to pronounce the word. (Katy: “They never had broccoli or eggplant. They knew peas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, and beans. Stuff they could grow themselves, nothing imported.”)

Little details like that are one reason I’m recording this here. To share a bit of what it was like to live in the Cold War, in Germany, near the Front at what none of us knew at the time was the tale end of that era. I don’t think people who were born after that time can imagine what a triumph the fall of the Soviet Union was. Having traveled a bit through it myself (Russia, Ukraine, East Germany, Czechoslovakia), I’m glad I took good notes.

Of course, these are just my outsider impressions, but I absorbed as much as I could of the stories of families divided, the chagrin of having been misled by a genocidal maniac, the cruel karma of being punished by an even crazier one. Look, superlatives are pointless here, and anything I can write is, well, inadequate. All I can do is try to show a slice of the fascination I felt over the stories, and hope that others will want to know more. I have students and children who weren’t even born until after the Wall came down, and I am constantly looking for new ways to show them a bit of what it was like then. The Germans fucked up and they know it. They have made many noble attempts to own up to their horrible crimes, and nothing they do will ever make up for it. But at least they try. In America, we have never fully owned the genocide of Native Americans, let alone atoned for it. We have yet to fully address our crimes of slavery and the brutality against black bodies that continues to this day. We are so far behind the Germans in owning our shit, and I want to learn more about how we move forward. So count this history among my obsessions.

After our breakfast conversation (communion?), which I never wanted to end, we had to head back to Berlin. Katy had a lot of family coming up that weekend for her big birthday party and we all had a schedule to keep. As we dragged our feet to the car, I tried not to feel how my heart was being stretched. Ever since I left the cocoon of my hometown at age 18, I have always wanted to be two places at once. And once I had crossed that big ocean, the tear in my heart had only grown bigger. When I fell in love with Germany, “home” had bifurcated. A part of me would always want to be where I was not, even while deeply enjoying where I was. And I had no one to blame but myself.

Unless you’ve done something similar, you can’t understand. But as we pulled out of her severely botanic driveway, as Katy waved a sad but grateful goodbye, as I tried not to cry just yet, I realized something. It is risky to care for people you can’t be with any more. It is risky to put yourself out there in the first place, to make connections and leave your home, which is suddenly, bewilderingly more than one place at a time. It is risky to love, and it is risky to leave. And that is all I can say about that.

Katy and me.

Katy and me.

The farewell flower of friendship.

The farewell flower of friendship.

Next up: Berlin, City of Renewal






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On to Wampen! An East-West Adventure

After Nuremberg/Nürnberg, we headed to Berlin and our rented condo in the city which, it turned out, was in the former East Berlin. We were so excited to see Berlin…my husband and kids have never been there and the last time I was there it was a divided city, which made it fascinating and soul-crushingly depressing at the same time. The vice grip of the Soviet occupation was no joke, but more on that later.

On the way, we would be crossing through the former DDR (East Germany).

Piece of the actual fence that ran along the inner German border. CC license, photo by Vincent de Groot - http://www.videgro.net.

Piece of the actual fence that ran along the inner German border. CC license, photo by Vincent de Groot – http://www.videgro.net.

I was excited to explore the former DDR by car, as I had only seen it from the train as I crossed to Berlin once. There wasn’t much to see: empty landscape, farms, and Geisterbahn (ghost train) stations, thus called because the trains had long since ceased to stop there. And I had peered at the Iron Curtain between West and East Germany outside of Göttingen (where I studied for a semester). From a distance, thanks to warning signs not to get closer, we peered through the Iron Curtain, the wire fence and No Man’s Land that divided the two nations but one people. It was deeply depressing. The westernmost barrier was a fence you could easily see through, but the metal mesh was specially designed to slice your fingers if you tried to climb it. The fence was equipped with trip wires attached to assault weapons; the shoot-to-kill order was strictly enforced. The Soviets insisted it was all to keep the capitalists out, but all the weapons pointed east.

Behind the fence was a sandy strip of No Man’s Land, several yards wide and perpetually grated by patrol trucks driven by armed guards. Add to that watch towers, foot patrol soldiers with attack dogs, and high-power listening devices. The listening devices were trained to the west side of the border, however, which gave us the added advantage of telling the Soviets directly exactly what we thought of their stupid wall. For what it was worth.

An old post from the inner German border, now on display outside the Wall Musuem at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

An old post from the inner German border, now on display outside the Wall Musuem at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

But on our route for this trip, on the way to Berlin, just about 20 km from the Autobahn, lay the the little town of Wittenberg, where Luther inadvertently started the Reformation. Just so happens, this year is the 500th anniversary of his fateful nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the Schloßkirche, a bold rebuke of the Roman Catholic theology of 1517. We were excited to see the church ourselves–ok, I practically ran. And my husband got some pictures of me all giddy by the door where it all started. Luther’s Theses are now memorialized in bronze and protected from geeks like me by a tasteful fence.

As I stepped into the cool interior of the church, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I know how lucky we are to be able to make a trip like this. And to be able to see my old friends–virtually all of them in one go–was a life event for me.

The church was a lot to take in at once. Everyone inside was having a similar experience, staring around silently, heads tilted back, mouths agape, taking slow and quiet steps, occasionally taking a photos, but reverently. There’s something about standing in a very old building, especially one where people have flocked for guidance and stability in many turbulent eras. Of course, not everyone who enters a church embodies the beliefs they pretend to espouse. Humans are complicated, and that tug-of-war is what fascinates and challenges me.

World's most famous poster? Where Luther started the Reformation.

World’s most famous poster? Where Luther started the Reformation.















The altar.

The altar.











































Unbelievably ornate lectern.


Leaving Wittenberg and heading north, you notice the different look of a town that missed out on the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the Reconstruction. The overbearing Soviet presence had receded quickly, but something about the dour, faded buildings reflected that colorless occupation. A history of suspicion and surveillance had left a detectable trace, like a fine grit of factory dust. Still, it was nice to experience open spaces and I became obsessed with photographing the hundreds of wind turbines that soared above the rolling fields, close enough to the road that you could really appreciate their enormity. They are almost impossible to photograph well, but I passed the time trying. No luck, but I appreciate that Germany gets about 15% of their total energy from wind.

Crazy 'bout those windmills.

Crazy ’bout those windmills.






Finally, we arrived in Wampen, in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of wide fields that run up to the edge of Baltic Sea. Home of my dear friend Katy, whom I hadn’t seen in some 26 years. Katy is the best pen pal I’ve ever had. Her letters are passionate, detailed, and hilarious, full of all the Sturm und Drang of life fully lived. Reading one is like being wherever she is. In fact, as she showed us around her home, it all looked and felt very familiar.

Next up: Katy’s World

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Town of Light, City of Darkness

Continued from Sorry, Thomas Wolfe, but Sometimes You CAN Go Home Again

Of all the blessings in life, aren’t old friends the best? But as I’ve learned, you can’t just wait for the stars to align and hope someday you’ll see them

Hit the road, Johann.

Hit the road, Johann.

again. You gotta pony up and make a plan. The good news is, you don’t have to freak out about the planning, just start in one corner and work your way to the other. So if you’re waiting for tomorrow, guess what? It’s the very next day after today. Get with it!


After Koblenz we drove to Erlangen, to stay with my friend Geli and her lovely family, whom I had never met before but they instantly made us feel at home. Geli and I met when we both were at university in Göttingen. We spent many a night in an underground Kneippe called Im Trou. I don’t know what “trou” means in German (dictionary is no help, so likely nothing) but in French it means “hole,” and it was quite literally a hole in the ground–and one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been in.

It must have been an old wine cellar from long ago, buried under a row of shops. The entrance was a steep, narrow stone staircase–a bit death-defying on snowy nights with wet boots. If you were coming down the stairs while others were going up, it was a tight but friendly squeeze. The tables were set into alcoves carved out of the stone, with wooden tables and benches and lots of candles. It was so cozy to meet there with friends on long winter nights, and the beer they served was the best: Urstoff, Flensburger, Valentinus. Damn fine brews. I was so homesick those winter nights, I didn’t mind leaving my room in the dark to bus it to town to meet there. It was a huge relief each time I saw Geli’s smiling face, and in fact she helped me survive a particularly bad stretch after a long-distance break-up.

Over the years we lost touch (time flies when you’re having kids) but Geli had looked me up about a year ago and found me online. Reconnecting with her through email was amazing, but nothing like seeing her again in person. When we finally got to her driveway I jumped from the car. “I can’t believe it! Is this really happening?” and that kind of thing. God, I wish that kind of happy reunion on all of you.

Geli’s husband, Stefan, is the kind of person who instantly puts you at ease and their lovely daughters were just a delight to behold. I’m still so grateful for how welcome they made us feel. We had lunch in their garden and then the teenage girls went into town to shop while the rest of us strolled through some woods and along some fields above Erlangen.

We walked through those trees, came out into a little clearing with a beer garden, then ended up above these fields. Just a normal day outside Erlangen!

We walked through those trees, came out into a little clearing with a beer garden, then ended up above these fields. Just a normal day outside Erlangen!

Pastoral beauty? Here you go.

Pastoral beauty? Here you go.

The next day we went into Nürnberg and they graciously showed us around the city on a loop I’m sure they’ve traveled with guests before. I’m grateful they were willing to do something so familiar (and maybe even a bit boring for them) with such enthusiasm for our first time. That is the mark of an amazing host/ess.

View of the Pegnitz River from the Museum Bridge.

View of the Pegnitz River from the Museum Bridge.

The seriously funky Schoener fountain on the Christkindlmarkt (Christ Child Square) in front of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). Some of the figures’ expressions are hilarious.

I had not noticed all the details of Nürnberg the only other time I’d been there, to see Bob Dylan and Tom Petty in concert in a tiny venue (front row seats!). This time I saw amazing art everywhere I looked.


Just hanging out in the Old Town.










View from the Kaiserburg, the huge fortress above the Old Town. You can see all of Nurnberg with all its glorous red tile roofs.

View from the Kaiserburg, the huge fortress above the Old Town. Those red tile roofs!

The Kaiserburg was too big to capture in my camera phone. My Nikon wasn’t much of a match, either. Some things you can’t fit into a frame.

And some things you can’t explain in German, like this little bit of graffiti that would be quite at home in Colorado:

There you have it.

There you have it.

At this point we were hot and thirsty, so we stopped in a tiny bar to get some bottles of water. The summer was exceptionally warm (thanks, climate change) and we were wilting. We walked through more of the quaint old town full of Bavarian charm, with the notable exception of the Hangman’s Bridge (Henkerssteg), which was actually quite lovely despite its deadly history. Our destination was an Eiscafe (ice cream parlor) that served huge, elaborate sundaes that boggled the mind.

That’s when I discovered I had lost my cell phone. In a panic I thought of where I could have left it…maybe the railing of the Hangman’s Bridge? Stefan graciously accompanied me back there. No phone. We went back to the Eiscafe. I was pretty sure I could have left it at the place where we bought the waters. Now this is where the wonder of the internet comes in, second only to Stefan’s heroism. He used his cell phone to look up the name of the place on Google Maps (he knew the street corner but not the name of this tiny little pub). He called the place and they had my phone! So Stefan, mein Held, volunteered to RUN back there (over cobblestones, mind you, killer of knees and ankles) in the heat to get my phone. He even stopped on the way back to buy us some delicious Lebkuchen, a Nürnberg specialty that is like a dense gingerbread cookie made with ground nuts. Danke sehr, Stefan!

If you want to see the inside of the Bieramt Wanderer, when the owner so kindly protected and returned my phone, look here. Marvel at technology with me. And if you’re ever in Nürnberg, stop by and tell them I said thank you!

Me? Oh, just strolling through this medieval arch like it's no big deal to be swallowed by history.

Me? Oh, just strolling through this medieval arch like it’s no big deal to be swallowed by history.



















Next we boarded a bus to the Dokuzentrum, a museum exhibit in the unfinished Congress Hall that was to be part of Hitler’s complex of grand architecture designed to augment his tiny stature and showcase the massiveness of the Nazi Party. The Zeppelin field, home to the massive Nazi rallies, was completed with a huge stage meant to make him and his movements look larger than life. Hitler was a showman and had a habit of exaggerating his greatness–only he could save the German people, only he could make Germany great again (hmmmm….).

This stark red-brick exhibit hall documented the rise of the Third Reich through dicey politics, a frustrated working class, and a megalomaniac who ripped through laws, disparaged and eventually choked the free press, and manipulated rivals to get what he wanted (hmmmm…). It took a very sober and unsettling two hours to get through. Suffice it to say, we were feeling sick after watching video clips of the actual trials, with Göring on the witness stand feigning innocence. (To hear his voice, though just a scratchy recording, made my skin crawl.) It was mildly gratifying to see the corpses of all those hanged Nazis, but knowing Göring escaped justice by swallowing cyanide just brought you back to the despair of the genocide he and others orchestrated.

At the end of the exhibit, you walk out into the open air to see the unfinished Congress Hall at your feet.

The Congress Hall. May it rot forever.

The incomplete Congress Hall. May it rot forever.

Each of these silver cards with a name on it represent 100 Jews murdered by the Third Reich.

Though words can’t cover all that history stirred up, we ended the night with dinner in a beer garden, then some meaningful conversation and tasty nightcap in Geli and Stefan’s backyard:

Schneider Weisse    Elch-Brau

And I don’t know if it was the beer talking or what, but when we told Geli that out last stop was going to be Köln (Cologne), she said, “Hey, I’m not working Monday; maybe I’ll meet you there!” Oh how I love her spontaneous spirit!

To be continued….

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