Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Timetables & Tetris

TUESDAY, 4/30:

And now the game of Tetris begins.

Greetings from a hotel right outside of Tegel Airport in Berlin, where we're camped out awaiting a (gulp) 4am wake up call to begin our journey back to the U.S tomorrow. Or, to put this in perspective, if it's still Tuesday when you're reading this, we'll be getting up at 10 pm tonight Eastern time. And, assuming rain, thunder, snow, fog, ice, lava, a meteor strike, or a plague of locusts doesn't delay any of our flights, we'll make it back to Marquette just before 9 pm Wednesday night.

Yup. It'll be a fun day.

The Tetris game to which I referred has to do with packing all the crap we bought here into the suitcases with everything else. Because this was a shorter trip than usual and because the DB trains we were on have certain size requirements we had to bring slightly smaller suitcases than we usually do. However, it seems like we bought just as much in the way of chocolate, soccer jerseys, chocolate, boxes of cereal, and chocolate, so the game's afoot as to where everything goes and how it'll all fit in. I have confidence we'll each be able to do it. It'll just be interesting to see what ends up where.

Our train didn't leave Leipzig until just after 11 this morning, so we were able to walk around a little more and take a few last loving looks at the views--

It was also one of their two market days for the week, so you know we had to swoop through there--

We were able to see a few things we hadn't yet, one serious and one not. The serious one? A few Solpersteine, or Stumbling Stones.

These are placed in cities throughout Germany in front of buildings where Jewish people were stripped of their rights and their property during the Nazi regime. The stones also tell the ultimate fate of whoever lived in that building; in the picture above Abraham and Golda Landsberg died at Auschwitz, while their son was killed at Cosel. These stones, laid in city sidewalks throughout the country, are a vivid reminder of what happens when evil people enact evil policies. You know the old saying that those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it? Well, I'm glad to know that Germans are making sure that people know their history, at least in this regard.

It's probably something more countries around the world should think about.

The non-serious thing we saw? A store dedicated to kitschy stuff from the days of the old East Germany!

“Ost-stalgia” is actually a thing in parts of the old DDR. But, then, I guess if you lived under a certain system for 40 years the people who were around then may have some memories of it, and the people born after reunification may wonder what their parents and grandparents went through. However, something I saw in the store made me laugh at the irony of the whole thing. I don't know if this was done on purpose, or if it was something someone didn't fully think through, but there was a Monopoly game based on the old East Germany for sale there. Think about it for a moment—Monopoly, perhaps the purest form of capitalism you can find in a board game, with a version set in a communist country.

Ironic, right? Or maybe that's just me. That often seems to be the case.

We then hopped aboard a train, a bus, and a hotel shuttle, and only two or so hours later ended up at our hotel in Berlin. And for an airport hotel, it's not too bad. There's even a little green space nearby--

So Loraine and I were able to get out and enjoy some sun. And in that regard we've been really luck this trip—with the exception of the cold rain yesterday the weather this past week has been great. In fact, in some cases it's been downright amazing, especially considering it's still April. Maybe, just maybe, Mother Nature was trying to make up for our trip last year, when it rained for six straight days.

If that's the case, we really appreciate it.

Like I said, we're getting ready to fly out of Berlin tomorrow--

From Tegel Airport, which is not even supposed to be an airport any more. Let me explain--

Almost ten years ago construction started on a huge new, state-of-the-art airport 20 or so kilometers outside of the city called Brandenburg. Brandenburg was supposed to replace three old, small Cold War-era facilities right in the middle of Berlin, Tegel being one of them. It was supposed to open in 2013 to great fanfare. In fact, they even shut one of the three old airports down and turned it into a park. However, in a series of great embarrassments for vaunted German industry, a series of engineering and construction problems didn't allow it to open on time in 2013. In fact, the problems kept popping up and popping up, and six years later—SIX YEARS LATER—there's still no opening date for Brandenburg Airport. It's almost like it became a monument to major incompetence, sitting out on the Autobahn. So Tegel—an airport that's small, cramped, and lacking any major sort of luxury whatsoever—is still in use, and will be for the foreseeable future. In fact, there's now an outcry among Berlin residents just to scrap the boondoggle and to upgrade Tegel.

I'll be curious to see how that turns out.

Well, since we have to wake up just as you're sitting down to watch “NCIS: New Orleans” or the 10 o'clock news, I suppose I should wrap this up. I'll leave you with today's totally gratuitous lilac picture, this time with a road work sign that has a KFC sticker attached--

A totally non-gratuitous shot of Loraine and her new German national soccer team jersey--

As well as a sign warning you of the consequences should you walk under a parking lot gate--

Even though we're flying home tomorrow that doesn't mean these are finished. After all, we have a four hour layover in London and a seven hour flight back to Chicago, and I have lots more pictures and all kinds of stuff I'd still like to discuss, including (but not limited to) punk rockers, how orderly the Germans are, even when drunk, a store that made us squeal in delight, upcoming German elections, how I actually have roots in this part of Germany, my niece Mallory's annual picture, and the weird flavor of potato chips I always eat when stuck in a London airport.

Oh. And don't be surprised if lilacs and a little more 1989 protest history shows up, as well.

So until then...

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Day of Living Internationally

MONDAY, 4/29:

Since Loraine handled her German press conference like a pro, we celebrated by eating Indian takeout food. But this wasn't before we had lunch with a Greek guy who kept wanting us to do shots of Ouzo with him.

Yup. It was that kind of international day.

It's our last night in Leipzig (he says with a heavy heart), although the vast majority of the day was spent in the town of Weissenfels, about 30 kilometers southwest of here. Weissenfels is the town where the subject of Loraine's first book, Sgt. Elwood Norr of Marquette, was shot down during a bombing raid on a nearby chemical factory in November of 1944. The first time we were here Loraine presented a copy of her book to the town's mayor; today, she did the same with her second book, which documents (among many other things) our first visit. And just like the first time, the press was invited to the presentation, which the author nailed--

I say this kind of in jest but actually not really in jest, because it's probably true—I'm married to someone who may be the most famous American ever to visit Weissenfels. At least that's what it seemed like. We were met by our friends Anja, who works for the city's department of cultural affairs, and Gudrun (or “Gudi”, as she insists on being called), who's on the town's council and is an all-around force of nature. They greeted Loraine with flowers--

And squired us over to this restaurant--

Which opened early just for Loraine. When the owner arrived during lunch he insisted we all do shots of Ouzo with him; then after we finished eating he brought another round over. You know, to help with our digestion--

We then made our way over to the town hall, where we must have followed a dozen signs like this that led to the room with the press--

While it wasn't a big press gaggle, it was a gaggle nonetheless, with several reporters asking Loraine questions about her books, her research, and why we made our way back to Weissenfels after six years. They also seemed fascinated by the fact that we would come all the way from the U.S just to see a soccer game, and ended up asking Loraine a few questions about that, as well. Following the questions, Loraine presented the book to Gudi, as a representative of the city, with press photographers snapping away--

And we were then taken off for a VIP tour of a museum dedicated to one of the town's most famous residents, a 17th century composer named Heinrich Sch├╝tz, who's considered Germany's most important composer prior to Bach and who was apparently quite the innovative writer of choir music. Just how VIP was the tour? Well, the museum is usually closed on Monday, and the director of the center spent the day before his vacation just to show us around.

THAT'S why I say Loraine's the most famous American to visit Weissenfels.

Weissenfels is a very interesting place--

It's about the same size as Marquette, has a lot of hills in it, and has a history of mining, to boot. But I also found it interesting in that it's like a lot of towns of the old East Germany. In the 30 years since the Wall came down large chunks of the city are fresh & new, witnessed by a new bus station and by the renovated market square that opens to the public next week--

But also with a lot of buildings that have just sat unused for three or more decades, like this old textile factory.

Much like Marquette, they're trying not to tear down those old buildings, but to find some reuse for them. However, you need money to rehabilitate structures like that, and the funding isn't always available. They're hopeful, though, and with any luck that factory will soon be home to any number of uses.

After all, the great people of Weissenfels deserve that. And they also deserve many thanks for the way they treated Loraine (and the dork she brought with her) today!

Other than the visit to Weissenfels and the train ride there and back we really didn't have much time to do anything else today so, sad to say, no pictures or videos of street musicians. Of course, the fact that it was cold & rainy today probably kept many of them indoors.  I will, however, give you a totally gratuitous of shot of lilacs, with the French flag in the background--

And today's musings on the 1989 revolution. When we checked in the people at Motel One somehow knew we were here celebrating our anniversary, so they gave us tickets to use for free drinks at their bar. In honor of Loraine's amazing day we took them up on their offer, used the tickets, and sat in the lounge, which is plastered with murals celebrating the massive public protests that were Leipzig's part in bringing down the DDR--

I've probably said it before, and I may end up saying it again, but this is such a cool place. The history, the music, the food, the people. A sticker Loraine pointed out plastered to an electrical box Saturday probably says it best--

But, alas, we can't. Tomorrow morning we hop back on the high-speed train to Berlin, where we spend a few last hours before heading home on Wednesday. So until then, with the thought that parting is such sweet sorrow...

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Shattered Rules & Shattered Dreams

SUNDAY, 4/28:

I don't know that you've really lived until you've stood on a German street corner listening to a pianist and a flugelhorn player doing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the crowd singing along.

So I guess I lived a little today.

Greetings again from Leipzig, where this was the day we didn't have much on the schedule, it being the day after the soccer match and the day before Loraine may be the subject of a German press conference. About the only thing we really wanted to do was to attend an open practice for RB Leipzig, to see some of the players up close & personal, but because this was such a momentous week for the team (not only did they qualify for the Champions League, but they also made the finals of the DFB Pokal, the German national club championship) they were given the day off and the practice was canceled.

Or so we found out after standing outside the practice field for an hour and a half. But what are you gonna do, right?  Then, after we got back to our hotel Loraine found a Facebook message the team sent her yesterday morning, hoping that we would have a good time at the game.  We were stunned.  I mean, how many pro sports teams would send a personal message to a fan, even one coming to watch a game from a different country? 

It was a very cool thing for them to do.

Since we couldn't visit the practice today, after we took care of a few things Loraine got caught up on a bunch of stuff while I took my camera out and went exploring, which was where I heard the Leipzig street karaoke version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As I mentioned yesterday, the city has a long & storied history of street musicians, and they also played a huge part in the protests that started here and eventually brought down the East German government and the Berlin Wall. In 1989 it was actually illegal for anyone to perform music in public places without a permit, which was almost impossible to get, so in protest one June day a bunch of musicians started to play in this little park--

Where the public then gathered to experience the rather rare treat. The Stasi (the East German secret police) got wind of the fact that people were actually enjoying themselves and started to violently break up the crowd, chasing the musicians away and arresting them in this nearby church courtyard--

Ironically, by the way, handcuffing the musicians right underneath the statue of Johann Sebastian Bach. Word of the brutal arrests spread throughout the area, and in combination with other factors, including rigged elections a few months earlier and a token effort by the authorities of allowing people to leave the county, led to the weekly Monday night protests in the courtyard of the church across the street from where I'm typing this.

Not only do they have boards and self-guided walking tours throughout the city that tell the whole story of the protests-

But I also downloaded an amazing app that has all kinds of pictures and video to go along with it, called “Leipzig 89” (available in English in the iTunes store and Google Play, should you be so curious as to download it yourself). I know I'm a history geek (in case you haven't figured it out yet), but that particular moment in the city's history seems to fascinate me to no end. I'm not quite sure why, but it has, so if I babble a little too much about it feel free to mentally zone out and return when you see a weird picture. You know, like a picture of a statue of a woman riding a ram using what appears to be a snake as a bridle. Not that you would ever see a picture like that, though.


My journey exploring the intertwining of music & protests led me to the nearby Johannapark, which is one of the main parks in a city that, admittedly, has a lot of them--

This is one of those places where people go to walk, run, ride bikes, and do all the other stuff one does in a nice park, including playing a guitar--

Looking at duck-type creatures with red bills (an homage, perhaps, to the local Bundesliga team?--

And falling in love under lilac trees--

The park also has a rather famous footbridge that spans the little lake in the middle of it--

And it seems the bridge is the one place where everyone stands to take pictures, to gaze at the city skyline, or to just gaze in each other's eyes. Loraine and I both follow a couple of local photographers on Facebook, and they often use the bridge as the center of their beauty shots. It just seems to attract people that way, I guess.

Now I realize over the past few days I've made Leipzig sound like a perfect place, what with all the history and all the street music and all the winning by the local soccer team. But like all bigger places (Leipzig's home to about 400,000 people) it has its problems. Parts of it have still not been totally reconstructed in the nearly three decades since German reunification, and it does seem to have a large homeless population, especially around the train station, which is not far from our hotel and a focal point of our travels. You wouldn't think in a country with a good social safety net like Germany that homelessness even exists, but it does. I know a small chunk are Syrian refugees who haven't yet been fully integrated into the country's system following the 2015 mass migration into Europe. But it seems like the vast majority of the homeless are like this guy--

Germans who have either just given up or who just never tried. Some just sit on a bench drinking all day; others stand outside of the train station or on a corner with a cup at their feet asking for money. I should say, though, as someone visiting the city you don't feel threatened by them; instead, you feel sad that in a place that's so filled with wondrous people and wondrous music there are people out there who are just left out.

It's just a bummer.

Okay. Enough depressing stuff for now. How about this for a palette cleanser, courtesy of three of those street musicians I has mentioned earlier? Then may I present to you Mr Clarinet, Bassoon Dude, and Flute Woman with their version of the Cantina Band theme from “Star Wars”!

Yes, I know I'm a geek. What's your point? If I wasn't a geek, do you think I'd give you a totally gratuitous shot featuring both lilacs AND an Ampelmann?

Or a totally gratuitous shot of wisdom posted in a local storefront?

Or a totally gratuitous shot of, uhm, whatever the heck this piece of art is trying to get across?

Ah, Leipzig. You never know what you'll see or hear.

Tomorrow, we take a short train ride so Loraine can answer questions from German newspaper reporters. Because that's what everyone does with part of their vacation, right?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Once Upon a Very Beastie Boys Afternoon


It was a bit of a chippy game, with a very controversial goal, but in the end it was the final score that mattered--

RB Leipzig 2, SC Freiburg 1.

Greetings once again from Leipzig, where my ears are still ringing following the Bundesliga match at Red Bull Arena. This game was, of course, the reason we took this particular trip, and so our entire day was built around it. We made sure we got to the stadium as early as we could, just to soak in the atmosphere, and then we stayed a bit afterwards, both to let the crowd thin out and to wonder just why the drunk guy fell out of the stands & plopped 10 feet onto the concrete below.

Oh wait, he was a drunk guy. Never mind.

Now, I know that a), the game wasn't shown in the US and 2). you probably don't care anyway, but it was an exciting match, so I'll be posting a video link to the highlights of the game at the end of this. When we arrived Thursday and went to the fan shop I bought two player jerseys, and both of those players each scored a goal today so, you know, they owe me. And the two players Loraine bought jerseys for played spectacular games themselves, which made her happy, so it was a win-win situation all around, for both us and the team.

Would you like a quick photographic trip through the game? We hopped on a tram, and had to make the short walk through a bunch of parking lots, where we had our first sighting of the stadium--

In a grass field, they have all kinds of games and activities set up for kids--

You then wait until exactly two pm, and not one second before because, after all, this is Germany and precision matters. The gates open and the fans started flocking up the stairs--

Where the holy grail of eastern Germany soccer awaits--

If you want, you can buy a beer. Admittedly, we bought it for the cup it came in, but we didn't think they'd sell us just the cup, so we bought the entire package, and managed to slurp it down by the time the game ended--

Soon, the players came out for their warm-ups--

And the crowd cheered wildly. That was nothing, though, to the roar that arose when the actual player introductions were made--

Especially in the section near us, the official fan section--

We actually chose the seats we did so we'd be near the fan section, just so we could experience it. And it was pretty much what we expected. The entire game the section was singing, beating drums, cheering, chanting, and, I assume, watching the game. That section alone is the reason my ears are still ringing and, truth be told, the reason the drunk guy fell 10 feet onto the concrete.

Because, you know, he fell over the railing in the fan section.

The game got underway--

And 17 minutes into it Timo Werner scored his 15th goal of the season to put the home team ahead. Fans were happy, as were the beer vendors--

They actually have a cool way of delivering the beer here. Instead of hauling around a rack of sloshing cups filled with foaming liquid that spills everywhere, the beer vendor carried what is basically a backpack full of beer around, and pumps it out like he would from a keg into your waiting cup. It's a device Homer Simpson would love.

But more on that later.

The action continued--

And a few minutes into the second half Freiburg scored on a goal that probably still has people talking. It was a free kick in front of the Leipzig goal, and the Leipzig players were not yet set up and ready to go when Freiburg kicked the ball. I'm not a soccer expert, but I was surrounded by 40,000 of them, and while they may not have been the most impartial of judges, based on their reaction something was not right. And seeing as how Leipzig players were arguing with the referee for a few minutes afterwards, I'm guessing they weren't much in agreement, either.

Oh, there were actually slightly more than 40,000 of us there--

Loraine and I were two of those!

Not knowing how the game would turn out the mood in the crowd turned tense, until a call for a hand ball in the penalty area against Freiburg sent the Leipzig Viking, Emil Forsberg, up for a penalty kick--

Which he scored a few second later, sending Leipzig up 2-1, and within a few minutes the game ended and The Beastie Boys “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” burst forth from the speakers, officially sending RB Leipzig into the Champions League next year--

The Champions League is basically the be all and end all of European soccer. In addition to their regular league play, the top teams in each league play each other throughout the season to crown the European champion. Some teams (cough cough Bayern Munich) actually consider the Champions League more important than their home league, will spent zillions of Euros to bring in the best players, and then consider the season a loss if they only win their home league and not the Champions League.

And after winning today, Leipzig gets to experience it again next year. After the victory, the players came over to salute the fans--

And with smiles on our faces, all 40,000+ of us went home--

Loraine and I walked the 3 kilometers back to the hotel, barely beating the rain that started to fall, although we could've been packed into trams like human sardines, if we had wished--

All in all, it was an amazing experience, and one that I'm so happy Loraine was able to scratch off her bucket list. I'm guessing the smile won't be leaving her face for a few days!


Okay...just to prove that we did a few things other than soccer today, here's today's totally gratuitous shot of lilacs, this time next to a street wagon that sells beer--

Today's totally gratuitous Leipzig street musician shot--

That young man, like many other street musicians around here, was playing Ed Sheeran's Shape of You” on his vibraphone. I don't know for sure, but based on the number of times we've heard it play the past few days I'm guessing it was one of Germany's biggest hits the past few years. And I learned something today about the tradition of street musicians in Leipzig, and how they may have been a catalyst in those protests that brought down the old East German government 30 years ago.

I'll share that story tomorrow.

And finally, you know how I mentioned how Homer Simpson might like the beer backpack the vendors carry around on their backs in Red Bull Arena? Well, that thought must have occurred because Homer was stuck in my mind, both from the doughnut package we saw in a store this morning--

And from what popped up on the TV when we turned it on looking for the soccer pre-game show.


(ps—because I'm not currently in the U.S. You Tube won't allow me access to the English-language version of the game highlights, so if you're REALLY curious as to what went on today just CLICK HERE and, assuming they've been posted, they should be the first thing that pops up after the search.  If, of course, you're curious, and don't have anything better to do, like grouting your sink or re-creating the Taj Mahal out of your belly button lint).