Category Archives: Travel

Face to Face With Destruction


Seeing these church bells in Lübeck wasn’t easy for me. They melted and fell to the ground after an air raid in 1942, and have been left exactly as they fell.

I wasn’t alive in 1942, and even my parents hadn’t yet been born. My grandfather was relocated by the American government because he refused to fight in the military for religious reasons.

And yet, I still felt a sense of embarrassment, being an American standing there in Germany next to those bells. My country* did things like this. Why? Even if there’s a war on, and whatever the other side may be doing, do we really have to bomb all their churches?

Then, we went to the Dom (cathedral). It has a small gallery of photos of the destruction in 1942, and how it took 40 years to restore (though some original works are simply irreplaceable.)

Burning Lübeck Cathedral after an air raid in 1942

I had just been walking through the beautiful Dom, and then saw pictures like that. It was very sad. I imagined the people in 1942, seeing the smoking remains of so many buildings that had been important to the town for centuries. Places where, no doubt, some of them worshiped, and their parents and grandparents had too. I imagined my sadness if a country bombed one of the churches that my ancestors helped start or build. I felt ashamed of what the democracy in which I live (and its allies) did to the Dom, to Marienkirche, and to the other churches and civilians there.

Then, a few days ago, Wikileaks posted a video from an American helicopter in which our soldiers begged “Come on, let us shoot!” at people, most or all of which were completely unarmed. They killed a bunch of people. Then a van came to try to get the wounded to the hospital. Then the soldiers in helicopter killed those people, and wounded some children. Even if they thought their lives were in danger, I’d expect to hear some quiet sadness at what they thought was a regrettable need to use force. Instead, you’d hear them cheering whenever they killed someone, as if they had just won a round on some video game. They killed civilians, and considered it a fun experience and a mission accomplished. There was no sadness for knocking a man to the ground, leaving him writhing. Just jokes. There was no more care for human life here than there was 60 years ago.

It saddens me that every year we celebrate our military on independence day — celebrating its ability to kill, not its ability to feed. I wish that we could rather celebrate the times Americans have saved lives, whether in Berlin or in Port-au-Prince, or helped to topple dictatorships. Military power shouldn’t be our first choice so often.

Lübeck wasn’t attacked for any strategic purpose; the British did it to destroy the “morale of the enemy civil population”, as the Americans did in Dresden or the Germans in London. In other words, those bells fell to the ground for no reason other than that they were German. People lost their lives for the same reason — in Germany and in London. The British had no reason to believe that those civilians meant them any harm, that they were anything but caught between two strong powers. And the same held true in Iraq.

When we went to Berlin, we walked through the replica of Checkpoint Charlie, with the big sign announcing that “you are leaving the American sector.” There is little positive to be said about the Cold War, but there is something the British and American military did of which I am not the least ashamed: the Berlin Airlift. Although I didn’t see it, I feel a sense of the USA having been a force for good when I read about the Berlin Airlift Monument at Tempelhof, which has the names of the 70 British and American men that lost their lives in the airlift (due to accidents), above the inscription “They gave their lives for the freedom of Berlin.” That’s the spirit I wish we’d see more often in the world today: people giving their lives not just for their own security, but for strangers in need on a different continent.

We Americans have been, compared to many countries in Europe, relatively sheltered from the ravages of war in our own midst. I wish that more of us would have the opportunity to gaze at fallen church bells, to wonder through a magnificent old church and then to see photos of it on fire, or to see a monument to our soldiers in a far away land. Perhaps then we could better learn from history, and see firsthand that some of our most positive contributions to the world have come in the form of coal and candy bars instead of incendiary devices.

A small post script

Many historic buildings or locations we saw in Germany had plaques on their exterior with a brief history, often in German and in English. I was interested to note that some (though not all) of these plaques had language such as “destroyed by fire in 1942”, with no mention that the cause of the fire was a bombing. I was even more interested to note that same sort of description at several sites in Prague Castle, mentioning that the original building was lost in the fire of 1142. It was only on the third or fourth building in the Castle that we learned that the fire of 1142 was caused by a military siege of Prague Castle.

* I know it was the British at Lübeck, but the Americans did similar things elsewhere.

I also acknowledge that, at a macro level at least, the Berlin Airlift wasn’t purely an altruistic act, as there were geopolitical factors in play. But I am speaking of the actions of the airmen here, who took on considerable risk to help others.

Review: Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Rick Steves is known for writing books, and producing public TV shows, about travel to Europe. He encourages people to get out of their comfort zone, advocates staying in homes instead of hotels, and giving yourself permission to struggle to communicate in a land of unfamiliar language. That way, you get to experience not just the landmarks, but the culture and history. That was the approach we favored in our recent trip to Europe, and after being there (and seeing tour groups), I think Rick Steves is right on.

On the plane to Europe, I read his Travel as a Political Act. This is not a guidebook, but more a book about the philosophy of travel. As usual with my book reviews, unless indicated otherwise, all quotes here come from the book. He starts out with this statement:

I’ve taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines… But that’s not why we travel. We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow. Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.

I read this book mostly on the plane to Hamburg, or the week prior to leaving. I can credit Rick Steves directly for encouraging me to strike up a conversation with a random German on the bus from Hamburg to Lübeck, which I’ll discuss here in a couple of days. Probably the biggest lament from Rick Steves is that the people that really ought to travel — the ones that are so sure that their ways are correct and best — are least likely to do so.

Make a decision that on any trip you take, you’ll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zone, and be a cultural chameleon–trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a “temporary local.” … My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational … Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn that other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.

The book is set with an introductory encouragement to travel, followed by seven vignettes of different countries he’s visited, and descriptions of how it’s impacted him. He gave a lesson of the opening of the German Reichstag (parliament building), which he was present for in 1999. He was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans — and a few tourists “so preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning — that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people.”

He comments that we can learn from other countries — that no one country has a monopoly on good ideas, and it is plenty patriotic to insist what we adopt good ideas (such as drug policy) from other countries and adopt them for our own.

Particularly touching to me was the description and photo of a memorial in El Salvador, very much looking like the American Vietnam memorial — except that one remembering loved ones lost fighting the United States. How many Americans even know that we were involved in a damaging war in El Salvador?

A large part of his book was, for me, “preaching to the choir,” as this comment illustrated:

In the European view, America is trapped in an inescapable cycle to feed its military-industrial complex: As we bulk up our military, we look for opportunities to make use of it. (When your only tool is a hammer, you treat every problem like a nail.) And then, when we employ our military unwisely, we create more enemies…which makes us feel the need to grow our military even more. If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, “America is doing all the heavly lifting when it comes to military,” the European might respond, “Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We’re building roads and bridges instead.”

That’s a sentiment I’ve agreed with for quite some time already, and as such, some parts of the book moved slowly for me — though I imagine his target audience included people that had never seriously considered these arguments before. Then there were surprising facts:

by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France’s reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French “surrender monkeys,” I believe it shows their ignorance of history.

And again, I’d agree with him on that point.

The vignette on Iran was particularly interesting, as he described his experiences in person, they sounded far different than the picture we often get in the media.

I have realized, incidentally, that I am terrible at writing book reviews. So rather than inflict more paragraphs upon you with this one, I’ll summarize by saying that this is a touching, informative, and motivational book, which I highly recommend. I’ll leave you with this quote:

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” These wise words can be a reallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance… travelers can stand with them in solidarity.

I didn’t travel to make some sort of statement or as a “political act.” But I was enriched in many ways by travel — of course the obvious ones of contemplating the history of a 900-year-old beautiful church, but also in seeing the different character of different cities, being with two families for a couple of days, and seeing different approaches to common problems. I am very glad I wasn’t shut off from this behind a tinted window in a tour bus.

Trip part 1: Kansas to Indiana

Note: This post was written March 12, and posting was delayed until our return home.

This is the first part of our trip: driving from Kansas to Indiana with Jacob and Oliver. From Indiana, we’ll be flying to Germany while the boys stay with their grandparents.

We normally don’t like long road trips. Our preferred way to travel is by train. By air is second, and car is last. But this time, driving was all that made sense. We planned to make the 11-hour drive in two days to give the boys more of a chance to get out of the car and run around.

It’s always a bit demoralizing heading east from our place. You drive at highway speeds for an hour and are barely one county over.

We left at about noon and made it as far as Kansas City before our first stop — much to our surprise. We ate at a Cracker Barrel there. Afterwords, Jacob loved running in front of the restaurant.


Meanwhile, Oliver chilled on a wooden bench.


Jacob was excited to find this chair. He said “Here is a chair just the size of me!”


We spent the night in a hotel on the eastern edge of the metro area. Then Thursday hit the road again. We stopped for a mid-morning snack, then ate lunch at Pizza Hut. Jacob ran around in the grass outside again.

Jacob invented a new game with me. He’d ask, “How will we get there?” I was supposed to guess. “With a pickup?” “No…” “With a boat?” “No…” Eventually he’d come up with a silly answer: “We’ll ride a pile of bricks there!” or “We’ll ride on top of a stop sign!” Then he’d sit there laughing for a little bit. Pretty soon: “Hey dad. How will we get there?”

We had a few toy-throwing episodes, but overall Jacob did very well. Oliver did even better. He slept a good part of the way, and happily watched Jacob for most of the rest. The car trip went well.

This morning, it’s time to get ready to head to the airport, and to break the news to Jacob that we’ll be gone for a few days. We’ve learned that he worries a lot about change if he knows about it too much in advance, finding it hard to process and understand, so we’ll tell him after he wakes up this morning. Then off to the airport for our flight to Newark. Then we get to sit around in New Jersey for a few hours before our 7.5-hour flight to Hamburg.

And we’re off…

We’re off on another Amtrak trip, this one to New Orleans by way of Chicago and Washington, D.C. Our train leaves at 3AM.

Some have asked us why we are passing through Washington on our way to New Orleans. That’s because the point of the trip is not really its destination, but the travel. We’ll get to see parts of the country we’ve never seen before, and with the best possible view, too.

This circuitous route will take a few days to get us to New Orleans, but that’s fine. I find that somehow I always over-pack things to do while onboard the train. I usually get less reading done on the train that I do in a much shorter plane trip. Perhaps it’s because there’s more to do on the train than eat peanuts and stare out the plane window at nothing. On the train, we can meet interesting people, watch scenery close enough to actually observe — and from much closer than is possible on an interstate or a plane. It’s a great way to travel.

I’ve written blog posts in advance and scheduled them to automatically appear periodically while we’re gone. I just hope the blog spammers stay away for awhile.