Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Day 14: So Many Stairs

By Morgan Gariano

On Monday, January 21, we went as a group to the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Duomo, in Florence. I had previously read about the construction of the dome; however, I don't think that anything could have fully prepared me for the breathtaking beauty of the Duomo.

I believe what I found most surprising about the Duomo was how nestled it is into the bustling city. I wasn't expecting to walk down a couple streets and be at its threshold - unlike London and Berlin where we had to travel a ways to see much of anything large and attention assuming like the Duomo. However what was also surprising was the exterior of the cathedral. I had seen pictures of the dome, but I suppose the exterior had been left to imagination that could not do the cathedral justice. What I first noticed was the vaguely black and white, horizontal stripes (low contrast) that adorn the facade, but at the same time blend into the rest of the ornamentation.

What I especially found entertaining to look for while exploring the cathedral were the images of sheep. Back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the cathedral was built the wool guild was the funding behind the project and so I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt for sheep - early renaissance advertising!

By far the most impressionable memory of the experience was climbing the hundreds of steps to the top of the dome and taking in the incredible view of Florence. The air was sweet, the weather beyond hopes for January, and the satisfaction unmeasurable. Even the most exceptional imagination could not do it justice. Climbing the Duomo is just something that everyone must do at least once in their lifetime.

Day 11: The Great Sandwich Hunt

By Katie Olleman

Friday marked our third whole day in Berlin. In the morning, we took a break from absorbing the hard 20th century history of Berlin and instead enjoyed how Germany has built upon its past. We went to visit the Reichstag. Like visiting the United States Capitol Building, security is tight. While we were free to take pictures within the building, we could not take any of the security checkpoint areas.

The Reichstag is a fascinating example of blending the old and the new. It has served as Germany's capitol through many rough times. The building first became damaged in a fire, which the Nazis blamed upon their political enemies including the Communists as well as the Jews. Then, the building became further damaged over the course of WWII so that at points throughout the building the walls are patchworks of new and old materials. Whilst occupied by Russia, the walls became graffitied upon by soldiers of many backgrounds. Instead of wiping away this graffiti, it has been preserved as a reminder of the occupation. The result is a powerful commentary upon Germany's recent history.

Crowning the Reichstag is the iconic glass dome. It of course symbolizes Germany's resolve to maintain transparency and never repeat the atrocities of the past. Beyond this, the dome is a masterpiece of beauty. Visitors such as ourselves may go up and peer through the glass roof below the dome at parliament. A stalactite of mirrors hangs down in which you may see your reflection as well as those below and above you fragmented many times. Then we climbed the double helix ramps up to the top. The view of the city was stunning as snow fell lightly upon the frozen land. Berlin's starkly forested parks spread out below, the Rhine wound along under low bridges, and the many cranes of Berlin's current building projects are peppered throughout the city. The Reichstag truly gives one a full perspective on Germany's past, present, and future.

For the afternoon, we met up with James from Checkpoint Charlie to visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. However, we first needed to fetch lunch. During a brief layover between our bus out to the train station and our train, Donna sent all 15 of us students rushing to fetch lunch. However, upon realizing that there really was only one small sandwich place in the station to buy food, she instead stepped to the front of the line and told the lady working behind the counter that we'd like to take all the sandwiches behind the glass--about 20 sandwiches for 15 students and 3 adults. The cashier was a little stunned but happily obliged with selling her entire lunch stock. I heard rumor that the cook may have been a bit surprised to be called back already to make up more sandwiches.

Then we faced the cold afternoon and the chilling events of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp with James as our guide. The camp was designed in the shape of a triangle and was a proto-design for all future Concentration camps. However, its size proved small and difficult to expand, so the triangle design was abandoned in future camps. Initially, it was used to house Nazi political opponents such as members of communist parties, but eventually practically every group which the Nazis persecuted entered Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

James emphasized that since the camp was in East Germany during the Cold War Era, when the visitor's center was first opened, the Soviets emphasized the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated upon the Communists. From this I discovered rather disturbingly that prior to WWII, both the Communist and Nazi parties in Germany had private armies which would brutalize and take hostage members of each other's parties during relative peace time.

The entire day within the camp was difficult. We saw reconstructions of the buildings that the Jews were housed in; the high security prison for political prisoners as well as camp dissidents, the barren land upon which the prisoners worked, and multiple places of mass murder (although Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was more oriented towards housing prisoners until they died rather than directly executing them). As the temperatures were in the low teens farenheight, we also found ourselves battling cold while learning outside and just being able to warm up when James expertly timed visits into the reconstructed buildings. It's sobering to realize that each of us was bundled far warmer than those interred at the camp and that the temperatures would have dropped far lower than those we experienced.

On the long train ride home, James continued to tell us more about the camp and answer any questions we had up until the very last moment before our paths diverged. We were sad to say goodbye to him as he had been a wonderful, informative guide all throughout our time in Germany. Then we all bundled to the hostel where we enjoyed a good dinner and a free evening (which I spent some of playing cards with friends) to recuperate before our next adventure. - This time to Gottingen!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Day 10: Chocolate! And Other Stuff...

By David Whisenand

After the freezing cold of the walking tour, today was a much warmer experience! To begin, we headed out bright and early (or cloudy really, as all of our days in Germany have been). Our destination was the Euler archives where a Professor of Math History and the Director of the Archives had brought out a variety of manuscripts and placed them upon a table. After climbing up six flights of stairs, we reached the room they had set aside. Once there, the Professor, who had been awarded a medal from the DDR [old East Germany] named after Euler and whose said medal was part of the display, gave us a brief overview of the life and work of Euler. For each of the general points he gave us, there was a least one manuscript to illustrate. After his introduction, we were allowed to take a closer look at the manuscripts and, since Euler didn't know English, we were provided translations of the opening texts.

After thanking our wonderful hosts, we went back out into the cold in search of lunch. On the way to the archives we had seen a Turkish place by the station. In order to experience more fully German cuisine and culture, we had wanted to have some real Turkish food [there has been widespread immigration in recent years]. Despite my initial reservations, it was actually really good!

From the Turkish eatery we went to the Jewish Museum. The Jewish Museum had two sections, the new building and the old building. The new building focused mostly on pre-Holocaust and Holocaust experiences. There were traditional exhibits, but the real point was the architecture, which aimed at disorienting the visitor. Especially moving was the Holocaust tower which (perhaps disturbingly so) made the visitor experience the power of isolation and confinement.

After the power of the architecture in the new building, the tour then lead to the old building where the permanent exhibits are. This provided a comprehensive and moving picture of the history of Jews in Germany. 

After such a deep experience, we decided it was time to do something a little lighter. Thus, we went to a chocolate shop. Quite a good decision!

After a bit of free time, we gathered again at the Berliner Dom for Evensong. The inside of the building was incredibly beautiful and it could only be matched by the organ playing. The music was so well done that I began to doubt that it was improvised as the bulletin claimed!

Finally, we went from the Berliner Dom to the Pergamon Museum. In doing so, we moved from the power of music and art in recent centuries to the glories and wonders of the ancient world. It was thoroughly overwhelming looking at the Ishtar Gate, the gates and friezes of Pergamon, and the art of the Islamic world. The only disappointment was that we could stay for just a brief time.

As the day ended, we got back to the hotel and began to debrief from the wonders we had witnessed. Everything from ancient Greece architecture to modern art to the improvised music of the moment - we could scarcely take it all in!

Day 9: Walking in Berlin

By Heather Walzer

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, actually it wasn't stormy or night. Let's try this again.

It was a dark and cold morning.  We met our guide, James, at our hostel, where he gave us a brief introduction to the city of Berlin.  No one knows for certain when it was founded, but it has grown from a grouping of mud huts to a beautiful city full of history.

Leading us out into the wilds of the city, James first brought us to a square where high-ranking men in the Third Reich were killed for attempting to assassinate Hitler.  Immediately after the war, they were viewed as traitors, but now it is understood that they were acting in the interests of the country, just not in Hitler's interest.  There is now a memorial for them in the square.  

Next came Hitler's bunker; the walls and ceiling were 3-4 meters thick.  A complex below ground big enough for a family of 5 was filled in with dirt and rubble by the Soviets soon after the end of the war.  It is the weirdest feeling, standing above the place where one of the most notorious men in the world committed suicide.  

Potzdamer Platz is a major city spot.  Here, our interests were directed towards pieces of The Wall that had been set up in a memorial.  One side was coated with gum, and it was rather pretty, in a gross sort of way.

Continuing on, we wandered the paths of the city until we came upon the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  2,711 'stelae' cover the ground here.  These silent pillars stand solemn, guarding memories and recalling images of tombs, creating a labyrinth that is disorienting and confusing.  

The Brandenburg Gate is amazing to see.  Pieces that were damaged in the wars have been replaced with a lighter colored stone, so it is a mish-mash of colors, which adds to the Gate's beauty.  The horse and chariot (the rider having been in turn the Goddess of Peace or Victory) above the Gate face towards the East (and were not rotated by the Soviets as some rumors claim).  It used to be one of the gates to the city, before the city outgrew its original constraints.  

James also brought us to Euler's apartment.  Speaking of apartments, in East Berlin (and East Germany in general for that matter), during the Soviet era apartments were built using the same basic building blocks.  Like Legos, they made the blocks at the same factory, then pasted them together to build the exact same buildings, in varying degrees of finery, all across the city.  

We had lunch at Humboldt Universitaet (crazy busy even at 2pm), and it was quite good.  

Neue Wache is a statue of a mourning woman holding a, presumably, dead loved one.  Snow had fallen from the opening in the ceiling, making the statue even more sad and forlorn.  

Having held your attention thus long, I beg a few more moments.  The last thing we saw that day was The Berlin Wall.  Most of it was original, having been left standing since those dark days.  Other bits of it had been fixed up a touch so that visitors could see what it had been like.  First came an inner wall, against which was the East.  Then guard towers, automatic shotguns that fired upon touching a wire, tank traps, sharp metal 'grass', smoothed dirt, and then the 8 meter Wall.  During much of the Wall's existence, the guards were under order to shoot to kill, for any and all infringements upon the Wall's defenses.  Men and women were willing to risk their lives to cross this and gain their freedom.  What would you and I be willing to do for what we believe and what we know to be true, to live in freedom?

We ended the day with German fare and drink.

Overall, despite the cold that you will no doubt hear of later on, it was an extremely good walking tour of Berlin.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Day 5: Freedom!

By Christine Whiteaker

A large group of us, Gabe, David, Jacob, Nathan, Christine, Amy, Rebecca, and Heather, all woke up pretty early and hopped on a train to Bath. When we arrived into the city we went to the visitor center to pick up some postcards and maps of the city. Then we went into the Bath Abbey which was beautiful. It had fanned vaulting which made the ceiling absolutely gorgeous. Then we went on a walking tour lead by volunteers. For 2 hours we walked around the city hearing about how Bath has changed throughout the years. After the tour we found a place that served Pasties which were warm and yummy after walking around in the cold.

Then we hopped on another train and made a connection to Oxford. We were able to walk around Trinity College and see the Chapel, Dinning Room, and grounds. We picked up some souvenirs at a local Oxford shop and then headed for dinner at the Eagle and Child, where Lewis and Tolkien would meet and talk about the books they were writing. We arrived back in London at about 9pm tired from a long day sightseeing. 

Day 4: St. Paul's and the Museum

By Christine Whiteaker

St. Paul's was an amazing cathedral! It was crazy to imagine how the people at that time were able to build such a huge magnificent building. We were able to listen to an audio guide and walk around the cathedral while listening to the history of the building and everything that is in it. We were able to go up into  the whispering gallery and hear people around the wall talking to each other from across the dome. We didn't get to go to the top of the dome because it was closed but you still got to feel the amazingness of what Christopher Wren had designed.

After St. Paul's we were free to go and see what we could fit in to the time we had before we had a meeting to see the Rhind Papyrus. I was able to go and see the British Library which had the Magna Carta, Handel's Messiah, a Jane Austen diary, and many other cool artifacts. I was amazed by the detail in the  Illuminated Manuscripts.

Then I was able to explore the British Museum for a little while before we meet for the viewing of the Rhind Papyrus.  You really could spend an entire week in the British Museum to see everything but we were able to see some of the highlights like the Rosetta Stone and we walked through the Enlightenment Room. We were able to go in groups of 8 and 9 to go see the Rhind Papyrus. This was amazing to see because it is the first recording of more complex mathematical problems being done. Sadly when the Papyrus was found the sellers wanted more money for it and tore it into two pieces so it is in two different sections. While the other group was seeing the Papyrus we talked about the cultural aspect of everything that we had seen and the differences in the people.

That night we all split into different groups to go do whatever we wanted. Gabe and I went to go see Singin' In The Rain  which was absolutely amazing. It  actually rained on stage!