Savannah Morning News
July 10, 2016
Say what you want about visiting Europe.
I know I did.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” I complain in typical first world, privileged, entitled, whining fashion when trying to decide where to vacation during these long summer days and nights. What about Utah? Or Vietnam? Or South Africa? We settle on a quirky site-specific cultural festival in Terschelling. That’s a barrier island in the North Sea off The Netherlands, where bikes are the major mode of transportation and installations include an old Volkswagen filled with water – and people. The artist calls it “Carpool.” Or a midnight concert in the evocative sand dunes with dancers, choreographed lighting and the lone sound of a French horn off in the distance. Or a happening in another pocket of sand dunes, where a woman dressed in a flowing gown plays a grand piano.
Except sharing a six-foot-wide bike lane with hundreds of Dutch people – young and old (lots of old) – riding behind you, in front of you and past you (mostly past you), people who were born on bikes and could probably balance their checkbooks, make a complicated airline reservation and conduct an intimate conversation at the same time, if challenged, is not so easy. They are adept. “Speed is your friend,” one helpful rider offers as he passes us, advise meant only to help not to harm. They are only kind (and tall), these engineering-prone and ingenious Dutch who have reclaimed much of their land from the sea. Alas, most do not wear helmets when the ride. PS. I didn’t see one accident (well, maybe one, and she was an American).
Except before the festival, there’s Amsterdam. It’s drizzling. It’s damp. The narrow room we booked on a houseboat is like a cell with two sets of bunk beds. And forget visiting the Anne Frank house. The line is a mile long. Nothing to do but go to a coffee house which in The Netherlands has come to mean an alcohol- free establishment where cannabis is sold and consumed, all taxed, all regulated, all on the up and up, not unlike a handful of places in the States. We did not fit the prototype which might be why we were so well taken care up. “Everything ok?” the “bartender” signaled with a thumbs-up gesture and a smile. I believe we raised the average customer age three-fold. It might have been the only place on the continent where European soccer wasn’t being televised.
Say what you want about visiting Europe. They got the transportation thing down. Just don’t go wandering into the bike lane. You’ll get mowed down. The trains are comfortable and on time. The buses are double-decker. The taxis are cheap. The metro system is easy to follow. But best of all is a variation of car-sharing called “DriveNow.” First you download the Ap. Then when you need to get somewhere, you check a map on your phone screen for the nearest available car. When you find it you punch in the magic numbers, open the door, drive to your destination, find a parking space and exit the car. You are charged by the minute, which is the only downside, our Savannah and Hamburg friend Imke Lass told us. People tend to drive too fast.
Say what you want about visiting Germany. I know I did. I’m never going there, I’ve said for decades. While I didn’t lose any relatives to the Holocaust plenty of other people did. I’ll never buy a Volkswagen either, I said. But then I went. To visit Imke. To visit a friend in Berlin. To see what it looks like when a country decides to remember victims of the Nazi regime, when a country decides to remember not brush under the rug its atrocities. Later in Berlin we would see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an uneasy and eerie five-acre site of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid fashion and resembling a cemetery. Designed by an American architect Peter Eisenman, it was meant to be confusing and disorderly and it was. There are no names on the slabs. Each one seems to be a different height and width. It’s abstract, gray, disorienting and effective.
But in Hamburg Imke told us about the Stumbling Stones project. For this a Berlin artist, Gunter Demnig, decided to place a square cobblestone-size brass plate in front of the homes of people who were wrenched away and sent to certain death. The person’s name and dates of birth, deportation and death are engraved into the brass plate along with the words, “Here lived…” The artist has said he feels it’s up to the younger generation in Germany to keep the memories alive. Unlike a conscious decision to visit a memorial, people have to “stumble” across the bricks, Demnig has said. He wants the decentralized memorial to intrude into everyday life so the memory of the atrocities can be kept alive. There are now 30,000 stumbling stones in 18 European countries. Each stone is manufactured by hand.
Say what you want about Germany or what happened when its people fell for a monster like Hitler. This is a country that has decided to own its despicable history. Do you think Savannah could learn a thing or two about its relationship to slavery to make sure something like that never happens again? I do.