Biking in Germany

He flies past me, clad head to toe in black, no hands on the handlebars. He stops, dismounts, locks the bike up, lights a cigarette, and strolls away.

Everything about this short scene—lasting no longer than a minute—irritates me. First, he did not ring the bike bell to let me know he was passing. I startle easily, and there is nothing quite as startling as an unexpected biker. Although, I have recently developed a fear of bike bells. I hear one, my heart races as I look around for the incoming machine. After a few close encounters, it doesn’t take long to learn that pedestrians do not belong in the bike path. Very quickly, a nearly instinctual response develops in response to the chime of a bell. The first stage of reaction is a quick startle created by the noise itself. Followed by an assessment of surroundings to determine the directionality of the approaching noise. The final step is two-fold: simultaneously moving out of the way paired with minor annoyance. All from a simple “brringg- brringg.” Pavlovian conditioning at its finest.

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Lüneberg skyline from the top of the water tower. 
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I took a biking organ concert tour on one of my first weekends here. The fleet of German bicyclists was extremely impressive and somewhat terrifying. 

Another irritation is the biker’s outfit. He wears a black shirt and black jeans, maybe  even a light jacket. It is not particularly hot here, but neither is it cold. I cannot imagine how hot he must be in his ensemble. I am wearing a sundress and am sweating as I attempt to power my own machine up a hill. I love dresses. It’s frequently breezy here. I am reasonably certain I have flashed half of Germany  while biking to class. My strategy is to either wear shorts under my skirt or at least make sure I am wearing cute underwear. (I’m kidding about the underwear Mom—sort of.) Perhaps not the greatest solutions, but they have been working.

 

 


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Schwerin castle and gardens

 

 

The roads, particularly those paved with cobblestones, can be quite bumpy. He rides without hands, while I am doing my best to maintain my balance with two hands on the handlebars. The final straw? He is breathing steadily while I am now dripping in sweat. I am panting with each pedal up the hill that stands between me and class. Normally, being out of shape would frustrate me. He is breathing steadily. As I am trying to catch my breath, he pulls out a cigarette. A cigarette adds insult to injury.


 

Biking is an exceedingly popular mode of transport here. Bike trails and lanes are easy to find.   Cars whizz past bikes, as drivers are familiar with seeing

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Munich Rathaus

them on the roads. Popular destinations, such as schools, shopping centers, and churches have bike racks filled with the machines.  Despite my previous grumblings,I think the prevalence of bikes is amazing. Perhaps I am just irritated that biking is not as common in America, although it has been growing in popularity. Perhaps I wish I had packed another pair of pants. Perhaps I wish I felt as graceful and effortless as our friend looked. Perhaps I just want to make halfway up a hill without needing to catch my breath. And perhaps one day I will.

Dachau: How Numbers Deceive Us

There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and one-thousand seven hundred and sixty yards in a mile. A mile contains one point six kilometers. The Dachau concentration camp was over one square kilometer when it was liberated in 1945. An estimated 41,500 people were murdered within this space. These are numbers and facts. They are unavoidable. The sheer numbers stand alone, horrifying in the vastness of their scope. They are persecution and terror in stark black ink on a white page. We associate numbers with clarity. Despite a few conversions between systems of measurements, numbers often transcend language barriers—a recognizable figure on a receipt or otherwise unreadable plaque.

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Each plot marked where the barracks once stood. This yard stretched on and on, out of sight
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A section of the fence, with a guard tower in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Dachau demonstrates that numbers can fail us, can deceive by packaging experiences into a figure. A visit to Dachau forces an examination of the meanings behind the numbers, that they represent the systematic and industrialized torture and murder of innocent people. The realization is unquantifiable, an attempt to understand infinity. I could easily say that I don’t have words to describe the terrible vastness of the camp. It would not be an inaccurate statement: Dachau is appallingly enormous. The yard that once held the barracks brimming with prisoners stretches on and on. As you walk down the central road, away from the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gates towards the back of the compound, near the cruelly efficient crematorium, every step is a wish that the road would end. It doesn’t, not until your feet and your soul ache. Every step by every marked plot for a barrack building is a haunting reminder of the thousands that suffered in that very spot. It puts numbers into perspective.

 

 


I could say that there are no words to describe the moment that numbers become inadequate. It would be easier than scouring the dictionary and thesaurus for a suitable word. I would not have to recall the eerie feeling of standing in front of the execution wall, where countless people spent their last moments facing a firing squad. I could try to let the shock of seeing storage rooms dedicated to corpses awaiting the flames of the crematorium fade away. I could let the horror of bold black letters advertising  a gas chamber as a shower dull with time. Personal experiences generate visceral reactions that we must process. Numbers fail us, words fail us, pictures fail us. But we must continue to attempt to record our reactions, our experiences, to capture them at their most poignant. I can not, I will not, and I absolutely refuse to allow myself to dull this experience into “I can’t describe it.” For me, attempting to interpret a day visiting Dachau is a reminder, if only to myself, that it is impossible to quantify the amount of suffering in an inch.

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“Ashes of the Unknown Concentration Camp Prisoner

The Story of a Few Steps

“The ship begins to move. The band still plays, we continuously swing handkerchiefs. I have to keep from crying again… Germany! Goodbye!”
-Fritz Pauli*, 1953

     Everyone wants to know what the “mosts” or the “bests” are of traveling. The most fun. The best food. The prettiest city. The most awe-inspiring church. The most difficult or most frightening moment on a trip. We rabidly seek out “can’t miss” experiences. I found my most difficult moment at the airport.

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A good-bye breakfast before my flight!!

I can carry fifty pounds of luggage up a flight of stairs. I can get lost in a new city and find my way back. I have navigated bus routes and language barriers. I have walked for miles with blisters on my heels, but the most difficult steps I have taken were the first ones away from home. I thought it would be easier, this time, my second time studying abroad. As I stood in front of the security line, saying goodbye to my family, I realized I was wrong. I said goodbye. They said goodbye. I said goodbye again, and they did too. We said goodbye a third time, for good measure. I threw up a “peace out” sign and got in line. They were still on the other side of the glass when I made it through security, watching me walk away. I spoke with other students studying abroad. From all parts of the country, we shared a similar story. There is something inherently difficult about a few short steps, despite months of excitement and planning. The word “travel” shares etymological roots with “travail” for a reason. Travel is not always easy.


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My dad watching me progress through security.

Those vital first steps are the most difficult. They were difficult the last time I went abroad, and they were difficult this time. Those steps are when the decision is made to leave. Applications may have been filled out and accepted months prior. Fees may have been paid for weeks. An interest in travel and exploration cultivated over many, many, years. Tickets bought well in advance of those fateful steps. But that simple right-left-right that it takes to leave? That is the decision. Everything else is paperwork and checks on a list.


I hypothesize that this moment humanizes leaving– it puts a face to your home. It is a face filled with sunny streets, days soaked in laughter, and nights dripping with memories. It is a familiar face filled with comfort. Most accurately, it is the faces of your loved ones valiantly trying not to cry in the middle of an airport. And because these steps demand the sacrifice of the known, of the comfortable, of the loved, they are the most difficult of a journey. I hope that they never get easier.
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Sunset above the clouds
*My great-grandfather, who was an Operation Paperclip scientist, wrote an account of his trip to America entitled “Der kleine Rutsch: Ein Umeiedlung von Europa nach Amerika.”