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European lessons: Curiosity, history, and revelation

November 25, 2012 12:10 am

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Munich's Marienplatz features the Ratskeller, where conversation between tourist and resident is easy. edowen25.jpg

The Dachau concentration camp provides a reminder for all visitors to 'never forget' the grim lessons of the Holocaust.

IN OCTOBER, my husband and I took a break from the rhetoric of the election season and went to Bavaria and Paris. Travel is always a broadening experience--and in the case of Paris, I mean this quite literally--and we hadn't been in Europe since the onset of the Great Recession. I was curious to see for myself if this part of Europe seemed much changed--attitude-wise.

In many ways, going to Europe during the dark, rainy months of fall or late winter is preferable to being there in the summer. As in other off-season trips, we found ourselves to be among the few American tourists there, which meant the locals weren't weary of dealing with people who aren't willing to make the attempt at speaking their language or who demand washcloths in hotel bathrooms.

Our first impression of Munich was, as one might expect, one of impressive efficiency. We encountered no wait at the entry point of its airport--a far cry from interminable queues in years past at Heathrow or even the line to get into the line at Dulles to go through security to fly out of the country. Our luggage came through the chute just as we arrived at baggage claim, and we were waved immediately through customs. Fifteen minutes, tops, from plane to ground transportation.

Rather than take an expensive taxi into town, we let a clean subway whisk us from the distant airport to our downtown hotel. Recent statistics indicate that Munich has a population of 1.3 million, approximately the same as in the Richmond Metropolitan Area. But that's where the similarity ends: Greater Richmond could no more come up with such a marvelous transportation system than it could pave its streets with gold: It wouldn't have the wherewithal, and the warring city and surrounding counties wouldn't be able to agree on a plan.

ECONOMIC CHALLENGES

The people we talked with throughout Germany were curious about the upcoming U.S. election and all things American. Germany is the rich guy on the European Union block, yet no one we spoke with seemed particularly discouraged by Germany's assistance in bailouts of the economies of Greece, Spain, and Portugal, although I know that this sentiment does exist.

Within this "socialist" country, everyone we spoke with--including a 70-year-old female doctor sitting across from us on the high-speed train to Paris--expressed hope that President Obama would be re-elected. (The doctor could not begin to wrap her brain around the idea that so many Americans would reject national health care such as the program--she told us--that worked so well for the German people.) Evening and morning newscasts focused heavily on the second and third Obama-Romney debates, which occurred while we were there.

My husband and I again rode the subway for the long ride to the Munich suburb of Dachau. We felt we should pay our respects to the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust. The concentration camp there remains a stark reminder of the excesses of absolute power and propaganda machines. At the visitors center, a film is shown in an an appropriately unadorned theater of hard wooden seats; the audience--mostly German--was warned that the photos to come would be graphic. This was no exaggeration.

Exuberant secondary-school students who were laughing and texting on the way over to Dachau with us on the subway became respectful, silent.

TELLING IT LIKE IT WAS

On television that night, a two-hour program was shown as part of a series on World War II. Over and over, we could hear the words: die propaganda. The documentary was straightforward--telling it, as Howard Cosell would have said, "like it is." I was impressed by this openness, thinking how nice it would be if more of us discussed aspects of our own shameful past (slavery, the Jim Crow era, Massive Resistance, the Indian wars) and our imperfections today.

The following night, a documentary on neo-Nazis in Germany was featured. We weren't in the country long enough to see live evidence of this, so I'm thinking (hoping!) that this is a small group--the lunatic fringe, so to speak--much as what little remains of the Ku Klux Klan in America.

But I was impressed that these programs were so prominently featured on television in our cozy hotel room near the Marienplatz, with its charming Middle Ages glockenspiel, the Ratskeller, and biergartens. I had read and heard from many sources that the German government and people have genuinely worked to acknowledge their past religious and racial prejudices, their "killing fields," their sad place in history. The words "never again" adorn the memorials. It's one of the reasons, after 35 years of travel in Europe, that I finally allowed myself the pleasure of being a tourist here.

A FREE PEOPLE?

Today, despite the challenges within the EU, Germany itself is prosperous. The same appears true to the tourist's eye for my personal favorite in foreign countries: France. There, the press acknowledges the challenges faced by its economy, and when you're taking the train into the Gare de l'Est, the suburbs look grim.

But it's hard not to suspect that there's something in these two modern and progressive countries that's going right. If the citoyens of France aren't "free" because of their so-called socialist form of government, it's impossible to discern.

When we were departing for home, our driver to the airport enthusiastically said, "Please come back to France! You are always welcome in France! Americans are always welcome in France!"

He certainly doesn't have to twist my arm.




Karen Owen is Viewpoints editor of The Free Lance-Star.




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