Thursday, September 6, 2007

What I Did in Summer Vacation

Trying to get back into gear after a long trip isn't easy, so I haven't been writing much.

Still, thought I'd show a couple of pictures from vacation and give a quick reflection on what a trip like this means.

We were in Germany for two weeks visiting friends and doing some sightseeing. As the picture on the right shows, sometimes we were doing both. That's my friend Kerstin and her kids with me in from of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. When I was an exchange student in Berlin lots and lots of years ago, the Brandenburg Gate was in East Berlin, and the Berlin Wall ran in front of it. What a thrill to be able to walk under it (even though they were preparing for an anti-violence concert at the moment, making this difficult).

While in Berlin for only a couple of days, we spent much of that time – at my kids' request, believe it or not – looking at remnants of the Berlin Wall. We went to a wall museum and the old Check Point Charlie where so many prisoner exchanges were made. To look at huge lengths of the wall that separated people so violently – even though I lived with it on a daily basis while it was still a real wall, this felt very sobering. The wall museum we visited listed other societies that tried to "protect" themselves with walls and noted how they all ultimately failed. Made me think of our own wall we're building across the Mexican border.

We spent time in less popular locales, too. One of our favorite – and another place I spent a good bit of time in my youth – was Alfeld, a small city in the middle of the country that has less tourism than Poughkeepsie. But the kids loved it there. More than the famous Neuschwanstein Castle (model for Disney's Cinderella castle), more than the Rhine River and the grand Cologne Cathedral, more than Heidelberg and Wiesbaden … Because it was just a home, and our hosts – my friend Axel and his family – were just a family doing what families do.

Here's a picture of Axel's home. Anyway, what does that go to show you? That perhaps the best things in life are not the fancy, popular ones but just regular life. And that the best attractions are, after all, people.

There's only one other thing I'll mention about this vacation. As I said, I speak German because I studied in Germany for a couple of years. That meant that I acted as interpreter for the whole time, and although it'd been fifteen years since my last visit, it came back pretty quickly. On our cab ride to the airport to go home, the cab driver (a Turk who'd been in Germany for years), expressed surprise that an American could speak such good German. We had a great conversation, and my ability to talk with him made the ride much more efficient, pleasant and possibly cheaper.

Then, when we got to Newark, the shuttle bus driver (who took us to our off-sight parking lot), spoke almost no English – he is a recent Cuban immigrant who is just learning the language. My wife speaks Spanish, so they were off on another conversation that made the ride once again more pleasant and efficient.

As I listened to her speaking with the man, it occurred to me that within a nine-hour period, our children had just had the opportunity to watch their parents converse in two different languages, making travel much more enjoyable. I hope the lesson they take from it is that languages need not be a barrier to relating with others. All you have to do is put a little work into it, and you can break down barriers.

It was a fun and educational vacation – but alas, now it's back to work. Still, even vacation can give you much to reflect on.