Das Ende

As we flew away from the Parisian skyline, our final destination loomed ahead. Berlin, the heart of the Third Reich and focal point of the Cold War. As with Paris, people gave me a less than favorable impression going into it with the city being referred to as, “ugly,” “Communist-blocesque,” or “just go to Munich instead.” Oh boy howdy did Berlin just shatter those misconceptions. I loved it, favorite city on the trip by far – it beats London simply because London was way too expensive (shout out to Greece for tanking the Euro). The culture, history, even food, were just fantastic. In addition, the monumental task of remembering the past is approached in an effective and brutally honest manner.

Approaching the wrongdoings and crimes of a society’s past is an incredibly difficult duty to preform. It’s oftentimes easy to distance oneself, thinking “I’ll never do anything like that; in that situation I would do the right thing.” While honorable, this mindset quickly dissolves in the social and political climate created by the Nazi’s. The museum the Topography of Terror showcases the their ability to maintain this atmosphere through the brutal use of the Gestapo and SS. Taking you through the rise of those organizations within the Nazi party to their ruthless and horrific tactics and finally the repercussions for those in charge, this museum spares no detail. It includes the murderous persecution of all political opposition plus the “undesirables” (Jews, Roma, homosexuals, etc.) and their large role within the Holocaust. This is presented in an incredibly exhaustive text heavy exhibition with pictures. There is no altering of the historical narrative and no hiding of details. The museum seems to accept the fact that the men behind these organizations were German. They know that these men were in some way responsible for the death of millions. The museum takes this burden and turns it into education, letting those who visit the horrors perpetrated by these organizations. The end of the museum was particularly disturbing to me. It showed the major players in both the Gestapo and the SS and the fates they met. Most of the time, many of the more low profile members who were just as much at fault as Himmler ended up facing short prison sentences or even no ramifications at all. It was troubling and even frustrating to see this. Why did they get away? It could possibly be due to an inability to confront the past, which should highlight the danger of not doing so.

This idea of historical remembrance and presentation of a narrative was one that confronted us throughout the trip. The sites from London to Berlin really showcased how nations come to terms of the past, whether it is the victors (England), the conquered/liberated (France) or the aggressors/defeated (Germany). Paired with my American upbringing and education I realized there is no straightforward answer in history. Everything has an angle; everyone has a bias – big or small. The danger does not lie in those differences, as they are inevitable. But I believe societies should know their wrongdoings and should attempt to come to terms with them. These could range from the killing of civilians in the bombing campaign over Normandy or something on a much larger scale like the Holocaust. Educate people about them, let them know what happened 70 years ago, so killing and suffering on that scale won’t happen again.

This trip really has opened up my eyes to these ideas in addition to some amazing cultures. Traveling to London, Paris, Berlin and even Normandy is something I can cross of my bucket list. It has been a truly unforgettable trip with an amazing group and I will forever be thankful for this experience.

Paris: Continuation of the French Narrative

Leaving the confines of our small town in Normandy, the group boarded the bus to Paris. To be quite honest, my expectations for Paris were not fantastic. Rumors of snobby people, crowded tourist traps, and over expensive food swirled in my head. Frankly I was the least excited about Paris out of all of our destinations. I would probably be ruined by Anthony Bourdain if he heard me say that. BUT, to save face (kinda), I was glad I proved myself wrong.

It is a stunningly beautiful city, possibly the most visually pleasing one I’ve ever been in. Where New York smacks you in the face with skyscrapers, Paris has mostly just 4-6 level buildings fashioned in mainly baroque or classical styling. This architecture is charming and welcoming in a way. Coupled with the Eiffel Tower and cathedrals, there certainly is a romantic flair to the city. The food was good, nothing too expensive, especially compared to London. The people were not too snobby either most of the time. The tourist destinations were packed though, but that wasn’t going to change with the outstanding weather and it being the month of May.


The Eiffel Tower dominating the Parisian skyline


After being peeved at the narrative presented on the liberation in Normandy, the one presented in Paris was definitely more favorable towards the Americans. Regardless, the group went into Les Invalides – the French War Museum – with a little bit of trepidation. It’s World War II section was very straightforward, detailed, and only really unique in a few regards. The narrative presented was one familiar to American World War II museums. They focused heavily on the occupation of France and Free France under Charles de Gaulle, which makes sense. However, the exhibit made a point that nearly every major battle in the Western theater from North Africa all the way to the fall of Paris included some kind of crucial involvement from the French Resistance. In addition, the emphasis on Free France and the liberation of Paris played heavily into that idea. To poorly summarize, Free France, led by Charles De Gaulle, were crucial in the Western front and liberated the actual city of Paris themselves. Am I skeptical of this viewpoint? Both yes and no.

On one hand it makes sense that this museum would present that, it would be demeaning and humiliating to create this exhibit in the same building that houses Napoleons tomb only to present the American “France got walloped and did nothing after except collaborate with Nazi’s” perspective. On the other, I feel that underplaying the role of Allied militaries in the liberation of France is a disservice to both historical accuracy (which is what happened in the Caen War Museum) and those who fought in Normandy. This question of how vital was the French resistance and Free France in the liberation of country was one that I never really considered until this trip. It is certainly a confliction in perspective, but to me it makes sense that this national military museum would present an answer to that question that would paint the French in a strong and courageous light.

Overall, Paris was truly not as bad as I expected. Wow, how terrible does that sound? “Paris, the city of lights, the city of love, was better than my very low and inexperienced expectations.” Just ridiculous. Anyways, finding smaller places to eat and being removed from the huge crowds in the major tourist areas certainly helped in that regard. It really is a romantic city (sometimes publicly too much so to be honest) and I would certainly not mind returning later on.


Cemeteries in Normandy

After our time in London, the trip took a more relaxed turn as we took the ferry across the channel to Normandy, France. Leaving the hustle and bustle of an international city for farmlands and quiet villages, we saw a slow down in tempo. This was apparent in our base city of Bayeux. A sleepy town, it could be easily fully explored in a day. Our six days in Normandy were comprised of day trips to different World War II sites. From Omaha Beach to Pegasus Bridge and Pont du Hoc, these sites brought to life both the importance and struggle of D-Day and Operation Overlord.


German cemetery, note the dark crosses

In terms of personal experience, none of the actual battle sites compared to the three cemeteries we saw. The American, British and German cemeteries all presented a harrowing look at both the human cost of the battle for Normandy as well as national remembrance of those lost. The German cemetery was by far the most interesting (to me at least) out of the three. Rows and rows of dark gray stones shaped like rudimentary Iron Crosses were the common features.They all surrounded a large monolithic dark grey cross on top of a small hill, flanked by similar colored statues of a bishop and a woman, heads bowed. The neoclassical Christian imagery was blatantly obvious.


American cemetery at Colleville su Mer. Easily the most famous out of the three cemeteries.

An aspect that was completely different than the British and American cemeteries was the information on the headstones. They only contained the soldier’s name, rank and date of birth. It seemed like this represented the collective shame of Germany following the war. These soldiers, many only 18/19 or 35-40, were demonstrative of an aggressive war caused by a genocidal regime. Obviously I’m not by any means AT ALL defending the actions of German soldiers, but many of those stationed in Normandy could simply be fighting for their country and not Nazi ideology. It might’ve been the weather (50 and rainy – Columbus weather in the spring) that amplified my experience, but the cemetery’s sense of muted shame that hit me the hardest.


British cemetery just outside of Bayeux.


The British and American cemeteries were obviously quite different, somewhat due to the idea that (sorry I’m not sorry for the cliché) history is written by the victors. Staggering in numbers, they were solemn and justified in appearance. Tall white crosses with name, age, and regiment for the Americans. Similarly for the British, the cemetery was comprised of white headstones with that information plus a small eulogy. The white crosses contrast heavily with those in the German cemetery, pure, clean and clear of mosses. It was clear these soldiers needed to be remembered and rightfully so for what they sacrificed against tyranny. As Eisenhower stated, they had embarked on “the Great Crusade,” and paid the ultimate price.

Up next, Paris, the City of Lights, which will be incredibly interesting. We’ve gotten a taste of what the French countryside holds, now we will see what the biggest city has in store.

The Lane

A once massive empire sprawling across the world, Great Britain has been reduced to a near fraction of its old self. London presents a representation of that once great empire, with sights, foods, smells and flavors from across the globe settled in one city. The juxtaposition between the bustling financial capital, always moving forward, and the centuries old royal structures, still charmingly stuck in the past, shows that London is an assembly of past and present. My experience in London was simply incredible, and altogether too short.

I spent my time mostly seeing the classic sights of London. Big Ben, Buckingham, the Tower, Westminster, and many others showcase the age and continuous importance of the city. These landmarks are really enjoyable to visit. Most of them are an illustration of royal excess and wealth, but that’s what makes them interesting. Westminster Abbey specifically comes to mind. It was ornate, large, and packed with tombs of the important. Tombs of royal figures dating back to Edward the II nearly a thousand years ago showcase the history and age of this city. The clashing smell of aging marble and the mustiness of what seemed like centuries old books (probably the hundreds of dead people) drove the antiquity home.
The old buildings were fascinating and all, but Keith, Jose and I took an excursion on Friday that showed me what London really is. Soccer, or football if you’re European, Latin American, African or a pretentious American from Seattle, has been a strange love affair in my life since the 2010 World Cup.


White Hart Lane, note how the facade looks like an office building from the 1970’s.


With no real good reason, I chose Tottenham Hotspur, a team located in North London. We took about a 55-minute trip on the Tube towards the north of London to see their stadium, White Hart Lane. While the stadium was somewhat unimposing, at 12 p.m. on a Friday the area around it was bustling and lively. Halal shops with the hunk of lamb roasting on the spit, markets, sketchy bank loan businesses, and barbershops were abundant in the storefront. Loud, heavy cockney accents, the hiss of busses stopping, and children running around controlled the soundscape. It was real and it was alive. When we finally arrived at the stadium, I was, like I said, thoroughly unimpressed. However, the stadium was tucked into the landscape, it felt like it belonged in that area. Unlike monumental Ohio Stadium dominating the Olentangy, White Hart Lane blended in with its surroundings, which led me to a realization. That stadium was an image of the people around it; therefore the club itself was truly a representation of North London (Arsenal certainly isn’t) and witnessing the stadium and the area around it gave me a look into London that Big Ben simply couldn’t.

London has been an incredible experience; if the next three cities are even half as enjoyable this trip is going to be amazing.