Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Better Place than the Lakeshore for Reflections?


Liebe Familie, Freunden, und alle Anderen,

This may be the last time I write to you in exactly this setting, this blog, as it is just one week before I return to the more familiar and begin my final year as an undergrad at Wheaton. For me, it feels simultaneously bizarre and appropriate that I will be coming back to the well-known comforts of home and school after these many months of new experiences and bewilderment, but I am looking forward to it very much, especially because this may allow me to tell you stories in person, and hear more of yours! I imagine though, that once resettled in Massachusetts, I will feel again that itch of travel fever. I've heard the only way to treat this virus is with regular applications of foreign dirt under the fingernails, unusual foods in the belly, baths in unknown waters, and most importantly with daily flushings of the eyes with before unseen views. Nonetheless, I've heard it's chronic. They did not warn me about this at the travel doctor's. 

I have been thinking a lot about my future during my journey around Germany this summer. Bhutan's lessons in present-minded ness have been a blessing and a curse in this respect, as I have been inclined to live quite hedonistically and bask in enjoying each day and its moments, yet I have wanted to use this time to try to figure out what will become of me at the close of this adventure and the completion of my undergrad degree. Here in this post is not the place to divulge these musings (they aren't so profound---just the usual rabble about love, employment, etc,) but I admit it is at least as terrifying and exhilarating to summon up these thoughts and dreams as it was to begin and experience the adventures of my time abroad this year. It fires me up! I find myself going on walks with no particular destination but the prospect of thinking in motion and dispelling this energy and excitement somehow. I love feeling so trepidatious. I think that is a word. It will have to do.

Since leaving my Dad in Munich, after our fantastic week together in Switzerland and Austria and Bavaria, I have been roaming Germany on my own, sometimes with plans long-set-in-advance and sometimes with plans made on a whim the night before or day-of, and it has been an extremely rewarding way to travel a country I have wanted to visit for a very long time. For the most part I have been wwoofing, which means I am a volunteer for the organization WWOOF (world wide organization for organic farming) and connect with farmers to stay with them for an agreed-upon length of time. In exchange for room and board, I work a few hours every day (my experience has been five hours a day, six days a week) at whatever tasks need an extra pair of hands. It's been an unmatched way to travel cheaply, but as my first host, Uschi Moog, explained, it's about far more than that: it is about learning from each other and experiencing local culture very intimately, and making friends in ways that are simply unachievable through conventional tourism.  I am very indebted to my friends who have wwoofed in the past in other countries, and who recommended the organization to me, and I heartily recommend it to you, my dear reader, in turn. Do it! Or if you don't wwoof, do travel! Dig in. 

My first farm was in the small town of Traben-Trarbach, in the Mosel valley in the Rhineland. I had quite the time getting there, getting very lost in Frankfurt and going to the completely wrong airport from where my host had agreed to pick me up. I took a completely unnecessary, yet entirely comprehensive tour of the Frankfurt train circuit on the S-bahn and ended up at the huge hub that is Frankfurt International Airport. And then my phone had stopped working. Luckily, I did find a bank of pay phones (a technology which I had believed to no longer exist), and managed to recoordinate with my hosts how to properly get to the Frankfurt-Hahn airport, about an hour's bus ride away, which I finally did, and arrived around midnight. Luck stayed with me, happily, and this was also the time that the other wwoofer, an Italian named Alex, was due to arrive so it was no great inconvenience to my hosts. I was extremely relieved when I finally met Uschi and Jürgen Moog, who greeted me with hugs, and made me feel very welcome after this trying first day of solo travel. Perhaps it was a test of resolve, or perhaps just a lesson in means of public transport and communication, but the real take-away is: it's all gonna work out fine. 

Due to the lateness of my arrival to the farm, Weingut Moog, (Moog vineyard, auf Englisch) I was spared its beauty and that of the surrounding valley until morning. Good thing, as I was much better prepared to be astonished by it when it appeared in all the freshness of that new day. I had been afraid that my heart had been filled to capacity by mountains, having twice been enthralled by them in the Himalaya and the Alps, but I have been very blessed to have a very spacious heart, and there was plenty of room for the rounded hills of the Mosel valley. I cannot exaggerate its beauty. It is truly a romantic's dream, with the winding and deep river carving out the slopes of the hillsides with turns so elegant and wide it is as if the river knows its loveliness and is content to linger as long as possible among the forested slate hills that complement it so well. The valley is known primarily for the river and its steep banks where the people grow Riesling grapes for white wine. My hosts are teachers by trade, farmers by tradition and hobby, and winemakers by passion. They own three vineyard plots where they grow their grapes; they also keep a large garden of vegetables and fruit. Their entire property was essentially a garden, as they both had interminably green thumbs, and a reputation for growing things well and with care. 

I was with them for only a week, but I wrote in my journal on my second day that if I could have, I would have stayed with them all summer. I learned a great deal about gardening and winemaking from my hosts, not to mention the impression they made on me in terms of making a stranger feel welcome and like a friend, which I believe us now to be. Needless to say, I am pretty inspired by them. Gush gush gush. Praise. Love. All good things. Bah. 

Uschi was very interested in Bhutan, which made me miss that country very much, as I still do now. She fed into my wanderlust too, with stories of her travels in Italy and New Zealand. She taught me about growing her plants from seed from old stock and breeds, preferring these because they would regenerate, unlike the store-bought seeds which only survive for one generation. She thought it was a terrible scam that people were generally only given this commercial option, and couldn't use the seeds from such crops. I hope to follow in her example when I have my own garden someday. She also showed me how to harvest greens so that they would grow back many times over, and we literally ate the fruits of our harvest daily with salads picked only minutes before they were eaten. I will honestly swear that these were some of the best salads I've ever had. 

In the afternoons I was at my leisure to explore the valley. I discovered that nearly every village in the area had some kind of castle or ruins, and that the farmers of these vineyards would grow their vines on as steep a cliff side as a human being could conceivably climb without the help of ropes. Jürgen explained that each vineyard produced slightly different tasting wines because of the microclimate of any given area in the valley. For instance, he knew from years of trial and experimenting that his vineyard right above the water was best for making sweet wines, while the vineyard further up the hill was better suited to dry wines. The difference is in the sugar content, and the weather and production can alter the flavor as well. It is most certainly an art. 

When we said our goodbyes at the end of the week, I gave the Moogs a small prayer wheel I had brought from Bhutan, and Jürgen gave me a small slab of slate with a hole in the center made by the tip of a pick ax. Earlier in the week when we had been working in the vineyard by the river, he had pointed out such a stone to me that he found while we were planting some young vines. The vineyard is too steep for the use of any heavy machinery, so all the work is done traditionally, using hand tools. He told me that whenever he finds a stone with a hole through it, he takes it home and places it on the wall of the walkway to the front door. He said he likes the reminder of hard work and what it produces. I think both parties were equally moved by the significance of the gifts. 

From the Mosel, I took the train (by this time, I was accustomed to how transportation in Germany works) without any trouble across the south of Germany to the city of Regensburg, where one of my best friends in the world, Steve, had spent his semester abroad. This visit with Steve was one of the main reasons I had been determined to spend my summer in Germany, and I, again with luck, was not disappointed. We had a great few days together. It started with a moment of panic though.

I hadn't been able to tell Steve exactly where or when I was due to arrive at the train station 'in the burg' so I had been wandering around the station and adjoining mall just hoping to bump into him. My phone was still kaputt, so I was really relying on circumstance, or the appearance of an Internet cafe, in order for us to find each other. I was meandering around, looking conspicuous with my big blue backpack, and suddenly I was jumped! 

Ok, to be fair, by jumped, I don't mean mugged, but it did cross my mind that that was happening for a second. What I mean is: someone literally jumped onto me and leaped in front of me. Before I really had time to react, I stumbled, and before I really knew that I was recognizing the jumper, realized that this was not Steve, but another close friend who had also studied in Regensburg that Spring, Steven! (yes, Steven, not Steve. I swear it makes sense.) Following shock and the instinctual yet awkward-because-of-backpack hug, I turned around to see Steve: calm, smiling, typical Steve. We three then went back to their apartment complex, dumped off my pack, and immediately went out for karaoke, and the meeting of their friends. I did my best butchering some Red Hot Chili Peppers and even conned Steve into singing some CCR. The next few days that followed were rich with exploring the city, eating Kase spatzl, drinking Augustina Helles, and indulging in all their favorite bars and restaurants, and catching each other up on the last few months. Ah! How great is it to be among old friends! I can't wait to see you again in a few weeks!

I set out again on my lonesome for the next three days as I headed north toward my second farm. As luck would have it (I have begun to think of myself a little like Bilbo Baggins, with all my reliance on luck this summer), my hostel in Weimar was only available two nights, and so I was left with needing another place to go for the first of the three nights. A friend in Bhutan had recommended I visit Bayreuth, so I figured I'd go with that. It was an excellent choice. I ended up enjoying Bayreuth far more than I expected to, and was glad I got this happenstance to go. My neighbor in the hostel was a recent grad of Cambridge and had come to Bayreuth for the week on the chance of a lifetime with free tickets to the Wagner Opera Festival opening that night! These tickets, he said, are notoriously difficult to get, with waiting lists that last for years, but his dream was being fulfilled early since a family friend had tickets and was unable to go. Alas for me, this did not include a plus-one, but I walked with him to the famous Festspiel Haus, which Wagner had built for his operas and his operas alone. A recent art exhibit in the park surrounding the opera house included hundreds of munchkin-sized red, blue, or purple Wagners, conducting to each other or to the trees. Some people had dressed them up in hats and scarves, like snowmen, and they were apparently for sale, as I saw a few people even carrying them around, on their ways home. 

Although I was unable to attend the opera, which was a new production of the Ring Cycle, I did have the singular pleasure of exploring Bayreuth in the midst of a warm summer rainstorm, and was able to watch all the people in their fancy opera attire skedaddle under doorways to get out of the rain. I am happy to report that on this occasion, I fulfilled the meaning of a Bob Marley quote someone dear to me recently and aptly reminded me: "some people feel the rain; others just get wet."

I moved on to Weimar the next day to the Labyrinth Hostel, right in the heart of the Altstadt (old city), which was a really fun place with artwork all over the walls. I had not realized how much I had been missing that kind of whimsical artsy atmosphere. On my way to Weimar, I decided that I would spend the bulk of my visit at the memorial at Buchenwald. Buchenwald was one of the largest Nazi concentration camps inside Germany during the thirties and forties and was a "special camp" for political dissidents of the USSR during the late forties and fifties. It is only a few kilometers outside of the main part of the city of Weimar. Tens of thousands of people were murdered here.

Visiting Buchenwald was hard. I wish I had anything profound to say about it, but everything I can write  falls short of its impression on me. What seems most important to me is to urge you to witness it for yourself. Please go. Please visit the Holocaust Museum in D.C. or wherever there are exhibits near you. If at all possible, go in person to one of the memorials in Germany or Poland or the Czech Republic or Ukraine or elsewhere. It is so vital for us to remember these places and the people who lived and died there, and felt its atrocities firsthand.

 Buchenwald is strangely beautiful as a setting, surrounded by the beech trees that give it its name. The day I went was warm and sunny, with only a scattered wisp of clouds above me. In the distance from the area of the muster ground, where the prisoners were forced to stand for daily roll calls, marching, singing, waiting for hours in all weather under threat of machine gun fire and beatings from the SS guards, I could see windmills and farmlands, stretching peacefully unto the horizon. The positions of the barracks (no longer standing) are all marked with stone, but a few other buildings remain: the gatehouse, where prisoners were met with the iron bars spelling "Jedem Das Seine" which literally means To Each His Own, but truly implies the horrifying notion, You Get What You Deserve. The disinfection building, where prisoners were stripped of all belongings and forced to submerse themselves in stinging baths of disinfectant, as a protocol to reduce disease in the camp, which nonetheless was rampant in the horrible 'housing' conditions of the barracks. This building now houses artwork created by prisoners both during their inprisonment and afterwards. This place was an especial source of terror for prisoners, because in other camps, such as Auschwitz, 'disinfection station' meant gas chambers; Buchenwald was not a death camp like Auschwitz; all the death camps lay outside the borders of present day Germany, but tens of thousands of Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, Roma, and other people deemed undesirable by the Nazis were killed in the camp. The crematorium also still stands. The chimney. The ovens. The attached room where hundreds of Soviet prisoners of war were secretly executed. 

I admit to you, I almost could not bring myself to enter the crematorium. But I summoned a small sliver of courage, a minuscule tribute to the courage of the victims and survivors of the camp. I went inside. I spent many minutes inside. A sign posted on the door requests that visitors maintain silence there, and I cannot think what anyone would be tempted to say. What can you say in the face of such  hatred? How can you face and honor the persistence of the prisoners who lived in spite of it? To assert: I Exist! There is a heavy weight over Buchenwald, even now. There must be. When you are there, you can sense the fear, the pain, the death, the hatred, even after a half-century. It is insurmountable. 

When I left the crematorium, I wept. I sat on the stones for a long time, and I wept. 

The people who run the memorial now have done a truly commendable job of making the place meaningful and approachable to present day visitors. I took an audio tour with me, and it really helped broaden my understanding of the meaning of the different memorials within the camp. I spent my whole day there and was glad, if one can use that word, that I did. In a way, even though I had a more comprehensive education in and sensitivity to the Holocaust, thanks to teachers in my school back home who were passionate about the subject, than I think did many of my peers, I had a hard time taking in the full scope of my visit to Buchenwald. I left feeling numb. Yet, as emotional and intense of an experience I had there, I was still able to continue the remainder of my day relatively normally. I still ate dinner. I still checked my email. I still wrote in my journal, talked to other guests in the hostel. Life wasn't so changed. I don't know what I was expecting. I'm still troubled by this. 

I have promised myself that I will not let my visit become something fleeting. I intend to be mindful of it, and hopefully take some deepened wisdom and compassion with me. A great teacher and mentor I had in my home town, Mr. Bob Smith, taught me and my classmates that we must never be bystanders, as the people of Weimar were, claiming ignorance of all the atrocities at Buchenwald. In this way, I can understand the belief in Buddhism, that ignorance (and perhaps indifference?) is one of the greatest sins. At the very least, Buchenwald will stand for me as a testament to the abilities of human beings, at either end of the spectrum: the utmost evil, reducing one's fellow beings to nothing through shame, violence, and hate; and the pinnacle of determination, clinging against all hardship to a sense of worth. 

When I left Weimar, I traveled to the small town of Neustrelitz, in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. This town, I was told by my host, Uwe Fischer, had a history at least 800 years old, but during the Soviet presence after WWII and the years under the GDR (when Germany was divided into the democratic/capitalist West and communist/socialist East) most of the history had been destroyed, including the ancient fortress, which the Soviet soldiers burned. He smirked and said that thus, there was not much to see in Neustrelitz, but we had a lot of work to do back at home, so we bought some ice cream and drove to Hof Hexenwaeldchen in the tiny village of Blankenforde, about 20 km away. The village is home to about 100 people, and lies inside the Muritz Nationalpark. It would be my home for the next three weeks, and I was very excited to get to know this farm and explore the park. The area is very rural, as you might expect inside a national park, and very flat. It is well known for its many lakes of all sizes, and these are the main attraction. Many of the lakes are connected by narrow channels or canals, making this a paradise for kayakers and canoe-ers. 

The farm, it turns out, is not so much a farm as a campground owned by a family very interested in farming and living organically. Unlike my first farm, they have livestock here, but like my first farm, I have no specific duties, and am mainly just a helping hand wherever I can be. I am the only wwoofer here, and their first international wwoofer! First things first, Uwe introduced me to his wife, Darja, the kids, and several other staff members of the Campingplatz.  We then drove a little ways through the campground along the sandy road to a small caravan, where i have been living, and am writing to you now! No running water, but it is quite comfy with a table, bed, cupboards, stove, and small fridge. Maybe 8x12 feet? It is very much enough, and I don't spend all that much time in it besides for sleeping. The campground can hold about 300 people, and is predominately families with small children. Most people stay in tents, some have wagons like mine. There are very few large RVs like we have in the States. Many are repeat customers, and aside from the sounds of kids, it's relatively quiet. There is a nightly campfire near the entrance, and occasionally live music, though the most recent concert was quite bad, I'm afraid. What can you expect? 

Most of the time, my work has been tending the animals, which mostly means shoveling poop. If this job doesn't make a vegan of me, little will. Though I'm certainly returning to vegetarian life upon return home. Cleaning up after the pigs is the worst, as they are big and scary and try to eat my boots, and mostly just make me sad. One has blue eyes and the other brown, and they smell terrible and will be slaughtered come fall. Oog. I guess I am glad I will be gone by then. Such work is very humbling however, as I was at least once outsmarted by a sheep. Usually my first task is to bring the sheep to their pasture, which includes tethering them so that they can feed all day without needing supervision. I had been instructed to take two of the three sheep first, and then return for the other, so that I would not have to manage all three at once. Doesn't sound so hard, right? Well it isn't. But I still managed to muddle it all up:

There is one male, named Ludwig, after the 'mad' king of Bavaria, who spent his fortune building four fantasy castles, including Neuschwanstein, which Dad and I visited. The two female sheep, I was told, did not have names, and so following suit, I have privately named them Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. One day, before I learned it is in fact far easier to bring all the sheep at once, I brought Ludwig and Cleo, and hammered their tethers into the grass, as per instruction. Although I could hear Helen bleating from a hundred yards away, I did not realize as I approached the sheep pen, surrounded by little children who wanted to see and pet the animals, how deeply distressed was this sheep, by being so permanently separated from her partners in crime. I grabbed her tether, and attempted to enter the pen so I could clip the fastener onto the loop on her collar. Rather than hop the fence, I opened the door, as a normal person typically smarter than your average farm animal might do, and before I could enter and close the door behind me, Helen bolts past me on her rapid spindly legs. Bleating as loudly as she possibly could, she ran, with me following not-close-enough behind. 

Luckily, for I have maintained at least some luck, she ran straight to Ludwig and Cleo. Thus, it was only a matter of approaching her and clipping on the tether, and moving on with my day, dignity intact. This is when I learned that sheep are not so stupid as they may appear or sometimes act. Typically these sheep are terrified of me, I assume because I am bigger than them, and not a sheep, and probably smell strange. Although we had been through this routine several times now of me bringing them to pasture, as they had done every day of their lives with some human, they seemed equally perplexed and unsure of what we were doing each time. Not so! (Helen did know where her companions were, after all, and went directly to them.) So Helen had figured out her new freedom! Despite my best efforts of cornering, sneaking up, and trying to tackle this uncooperative sheep for nigh on half an hour, I realized I had better call my hosts and get some help. At least I could prevent Helen from wandering off by continuing to play keep away until I had reinforcements. 

It is very embarrassing to call up your boss and explain how you have messed up a simple task. I sheepishly (hah) explained the dilemma and they sent along Raschi, one of the staff members accustomed with the animals to my aid. We continued the game with Helen, but after many more failed attempts, we conceded. Helen would have a free day. Baaa.

I do other odd jobs around the shop and grounds, but outside of working, I have had lots of time to myself. These hosts are not so family-oriented to their wwoofers as were the Moogs, and that's ok. But it means lots of Carrie time. I like this. Mostly. Sometimes, I admit it's been a bit lonely, here at the end of my journey abroad, when I am most eager to get home and be among familiarity again. I admit I considered leaving early, but I'm happy that I've stuck to the original plan in this case. It's good for me to have this largely solitary time. It has lent itself to lots of productive thinking, long walks and kayak trips around the nearby lakes and trails. Loads of reading. I've read many books I'd been meaning to, and that is very satisfying. 

I'd like to retract what I began this entry with: that it may be the last. I think we never know when things will end, and perhaps I will have more to say before this trip takes me back home. Maybe I'll even ask for your attention here again sometime when I am home. Wanderlust certainly extends to journeys near home as well.

 If I have learned one culminating sentiment from these six months abroad, it is this-- and it is something that I think I have been realizing gradually for several years, and will continue to understand, as I roll over it into the future (is that why it is a 'pearl of wisdom,' because it is a grain we come back to again and again, adding to it, smoothing it over, polishing it?)--

: Happiness is limitless. Or perhaps it is better to say it is boundless. If we are intrepid enough to pursue it, we can learn to create it, and then we can carry it with us, and be boundless ourselves. 

Thank you for keeping with me all this time. For reading, listening, writing, asking, inspiring. I am up to my eyeballs in gratitude, and I cannot wait to be with you again.

With love, (really, So Much love),

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