Chris has often remarked that any travel day that doesn’t start at dawn is a wasted day. You never want to start something meaningful, or go somewhere too far away, for fear you might not get back in time for your actual travel to begin. Whenever we leave Portland we leave at dawn (except when Chris goes to Asia – those are late-afternoon flights), and it used to be the same when we’d leave Europe – simply because there were so many transfers between home and wherever we were. In the last few years, however, there are more and more direct flights between Portland and the East Coast of the U.S., meaning we can get to Europe in two flights, meaning our trips home don’t start in the dark. Our flight from Berlin on Monday didn’t leave until after 10am, so we got to eat breakfast at a normal hour in the hotel’s restaurant. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it felt like luxury.
Berlin’s Tegel airport is close to the area of the city where we were staying. Because of the East-West split, there are multiple airports in Berlin, many of which are only five minutes from anywhere downtown. That’s a sharp contrast to airports in most large cities, where they are built miles outside the city center to keep residents from having to deal with airplane noise. If I lived in Berlin under a flight path, I’m sure I’d be really annoyed by the location of the airports – but as a tourist, a quick trip from airport to hotel is great news. The night before, Gerrit said they’re currently building a giant international airport outside Berlin and will likely close some of the other smaller airports. I suppose that makes sense in the big-picture sense of the world, but I’ll miss the short commute.
The Tegel airport is also tiny. You check in at the same terminal where you fly from, instead of taking a bus or train to another terminal in another county. Not only that, when you go through security, it’s a security gate specifically for your gate – you walk through the metal detector right into the waiting area for your individual gate. That’s fantastic stuff, unless you’re expecting to be able to blow through those last few Euros in your pocket. (Personally, I was hoping to stock up on Cassis-flavored Mentos, which are unavailable at my local mini-mart.) Chris wanted a newspaper, and we both wanted some water. The only store on offer at our little gate, however, was a little “Duty Free” shop selling mostly giant bottles of alcohol and packets of cigarettes – neither of which we wanted. So we're saving our Euros for next time.
The flights home were long, but uneventful. The only bad news is that I must have picked up something in the last few days of the trip, because I started feeling a head cold midway through the first flight – a head cold which will probably hang around for at least a week, and kept me from work for two days more than I was supposed to be. But we arrived home to three very happy cats, and a clean house and fresh sheets for our bed. We have the best house-sitter in the whole world, and I implore the higher-ups at her college to fail her in this, her senior year, so that she won’t move away and not be available to house-sit for us in the future…
At any rate, I've been doing some thinking about this trip, because it left me with a funny feeling. I didn't bliss through the days abroad with my normal wide-eyed wonder, and I was honestly happy to get on the plane to be done with vacation (which I tend to consider a sign of illness). Germany had been a blank slate for me, I hadn't known what to expect - or prepare for. And Prague, while a highlight 13 years ago, could never have lived up to my memory. So while I would never say the trip was disappointing, it was with a decidedly different feeling that I stepped onto the plane in Berlin.
This trip was unlike the ones we normally take in several ways. We didn't know where we were going this year, only that we'd be traveling in September and that it'd be wherever Chris' work took him - so there wasn't the usual "I have to see this" attitude. I barely did any reading about the destinations beforehand - I just wasn't prepared for Germany at all, I guess, and I wasn't prepared for how different Prague would be.
I can't help but wonder if it isn't my fault - if I didn't have my hackles up about visiting Germany, a country my father's family was forced to flee, and therefore never gave it the shot it deserves today. I don't suppose I'll ever know (without therapy, anyway). I can only say I believe that I tried to give it a fair shake, and that the history I thought I could downplay is absolutely impossible to ignore.
When we've been to France, to Italy, etc. "history" has meant "ancient" - Roman, or at least Renaissance - I'm sure there's the same kind of thing in Germany, but the history that's most palpable is, of course, World War II. It's surreal to look around at "history" I remember seeing happen on television, or at least that my parents were alive to witness. And it's difficult to think about that history without thinking of my own family's place in it. I can't blame the country of today for what happened in the 1930s, but I also can't forget it when it's all over - you're reminded in nearly every sight you stop to see. Even if it's not related to World War II, there are photographs of the bomb damage every building suffered during the war.
In a way, I knew before we left home that Prague would make me sad. I knew that nothing could duplicate the magical time I spent there with my cousin, in a city that was still relatively quiet (it's about as "undiscovered" as I'm likely to find anything). It's a bustling, beautiful city today, and the old town is overflowing with tourists and tour guides. I can't be indignant, because I was one of those tourists. I just couldn't help being a little nostalgic for a time gone by, a time I won't ever have again.
Another difference - a positive difference - about this trip is that usually we're "just" tourists. The only natives we generally interact with are shop owners and hotel staff. Meeting the Germans we spent time with on this trip added a completely different element to being a tourist. Each of them was completely hospitable (especially considering they didn't know us at all), taking time out of their busy lives to entertain us for an evening. They were all fabulous company, and we hope to stay in touch with them. It's odd - my stereotypes of Germans involved them being more withdrawn and cold, and the people we met up with couldn't have been more warm and inviting. So neither the country nor its people were what I expected - in the case of the latter, it was a very pleasant surprise, indeed.
I'm glad we began an exploration of Germany with this trip, and the next time we go I'd like to spend more time with our new friends and less time being a tourist. Spending time with people who love where they live makes that place come alive in a way that guidebooks can never do.
So, that's it. The trip's done now. I've got to get photos in an album, but we're back to normal life again. As per our previous trips, we spent a good part of the flight home brainstorming where we’ll go next. Oddly enough, Germany made us pine for Italy - perhaps because we felt so helpless with our lack of language skills, perhaps because our systems were tired of sausage and sauerkraut. We'll see. For now, I'm happy to be home - in a place I love - and I hope our new friends come to visit so we can return the favor.