Thanks for the birthday wishes. We’re in the last few months of this once-in-a-life-time-year-long traveling sabbatical trip. John had to return to the U.S. for a funeral. So I’m spending my 60th birthday on my own in a campground in Munich, Germany, yet thanks to email, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, I’m feeling lots of love and don’t feel lonely.
I’m sitting in the shade at our camp site, listening to the birds sing, with a cold beer in the cooler and a good wifi connection. I continue to be amazed that we can live this well and comfortably for the princely sum of between $20–$30 a night.
This is our 4th trip camping in Europe. Camping is how lots of people travel here, so campgrounds are everywhere and they’re more like outdoor hotels than roughing it. Campgrounds come with clean bathhouses, hot showers; big communal sinks where you can wash dishes; a little café, bar or market where you can buy fresh bread and croissants. (But no picnic tables, so you have to bring your own tables and chairs. It’s a little weird, given that European campgrounds seem to have everything else.)\
Campgrounds are often located in cities too. So if you have three or more weeks to travel and can rent a vehicle, camping is such a relaxing and affordable able way to move around Europe. On our first three trips, we brought our tent and gear from home and rented a regular van (when we were traveling with three kids) and just a regular Toyota Corolla type car when it was just John and myself.
It worked great. Yes, we looked like a minor-league hockey team dragging duffles of gear through the airports. But once we loaded them all in our rental car at the airport, we were set to go.]
But on this last trip, we bought a camper van because we were going to be gone for a year and camping in cold weather. It was no small investment, but it’s worked out so well, we’ve decided to keep it, store it outside of London and use it on future trips, especially since our son, Carter, now lives in London with his wife. Retirement is still some years off, but at age 60, it beckons!\
At any rate, some people have a cabin on the lake. We will now have a camper van on the other side of the Atlantic.
Our van has a bike rack and we bought two bicycles. So we usually park the van in the campground and then use our bikes to get around. This has been especially great in Munich, which is like the Minneapolis of Europe in that it’s relatively flat; there’s a huge system of designated bike paths; the beautiful, clean, fast-running Isar River runs through the heart of the city and there’s theaters, concerts, parks and really great beer everywhere you look.
I mean, it’s a just a flat-out fantastic place. If you haven’t been to Munich yet, come! Here’s the cute campground restaurant overlooking the river. #LivingLarge.
Munich was also the birthplace and the central headquarters of the Nazi party. A couple of days ago, I visited one of the city’s newest museums, the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. Yeah I know. Maybe it sounds better in the original German. Anyhow, it’s a long, ponderous name for a courageous, thoughtful place that was built on the very site of the first Nazi party headquarters.
“Again and again, a democratic society faces challenges that demand we take a stand and show moral courage, “ says the centre’s guide in its opening sentence. “Right-wing radicalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism call for a clear ‘no’ from a vast and often-silent majority”
As an American living in the Age of Trump, this immediately got my attention.
”….Munich was tied to and entangled with National Socialism more than any other city,” the guide goes on, noting that the Dachau concentration camp–the first model of Nazi terror and its ‘school of violence’—was organized out of Munich in 1933; the 1938 “Munich Agreement” annexing Czechoslovakia was signed here; the terrible ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom was first announced from Munich’s city hall on November 9th 1938.
“Munich citizens as well as Munich authorities bore a decisive share of responsibility for the emergence and spread of radical, right-wing ideology.” reads the guide. So in addition to commemorating what happened here, the question the center asks is, why of all places was Munich the fertile ground for the Nazis ideology and program? What were the social forces, mindsets and habits that allowed so many people to either actively embrace such hatred or pretend it wasn’t happening?
This is really a gutsy question because most common responses from a people or culture that commit an atrocity is to first deny it happened; then to minimize it; and then maybe, after a long time, to build a memorial to the victims, which can promote empathy with victims while also strangely letting the perpetrators off the hook.
I mean, can you imagine the citizens of South Carolina or Texas or Minnesota or really anywhere in the U.S. building a center that studied how its people or culture bore a decisive share of responsibility for the spread of ideology and beliefs (especially right-wing beliefs) that ended in human rights abuses….like, say, police being able to kill black people with no consequences? Or police never really investigating black-on-black murders in places like Baltimore or Chicago? Will there ever be a Chicago Documentation Center Center For The Study of Ghettoside? Or mass imprisonment? Or Jim Crow? Or the destruction of native people?
No, because that would strike pretty close to home…i.e. to the people who still hold the power, which is why most cities wouldn’t touch that kind of subject with a ten-foot pole.
So hats off to Munich for being willing to go there and especially the group of citizens who spent 25 long years trying to get this center built. It’s a fascinating exhibit. If you’re in Munich, go see this place.
I found the parallels to what happened in Munich and what’s happening in Trump’s America to be disturbing: how right-wing violence was tolerated and ignored; (because it wasn’t seen as scary as left-wing violence); how the courts system contributed to this with its leniency towards Nazism, especially during its key early days before Hitler seized power; how some extremely wealthy people financially quietly underwrote Hitler; how mainstream German conservatives felt they could work with Hitler to achieve shared goals and somehow control his worst tendencies and finally how Hitler used propaganda so effectively to frame his narrative and to tap into bigotry and nationalism.
No, I don’t think we’re on the immediate verge of the Third Reich in America. But damn, there ARE disquieting parallels.
So one one side, Munich is a cautionary tale about what happens when democracy fails, which it did in Munich and Germany in the 1930s. And on the other side, today, Munich is an inspiring tale on how a society can rebuild and remake itself in really healthy ways after the unimaginable happens.
One thing that’s clear after this year of travel is that life is so full of paradox. People are awful. People are wonderful. Horrible, horrible shit happens. So does resurrection.
One last thing…I say this on every birthday, but it’s true. On June 26th, 1983, on my Golden Birthday, i.e. on the day I turned 26 years old—I met my wonderful husband, John Bellaimey. Thirty-four years later, he is still the gift who keeps on giving and the best present ever. Here he is, after landing in his hometown of Detroit two days ago:
Thanks for all the birthday wishes! We’ll be back in Minneapolis in mid-August. Love to all of you!!!!