Couch Surfing in Konstanz

Staying with strangers is odd.  You spend a couple of weeks emailing back and forth with a person you’ve never met, making arrangements.  But, the whole time, you’re never really sure if it will work out… will it be a total disaster?  Will we get along?  Will I be in the way?

I’ve spent the past few days in Konstanz, Germany staying with a friend of a friend.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it’s been a really positive experience.  My hosts have been incredibly kind and accommodating, giving me a room of my own to sleep in, a bike to use, and a spare key so I can come and go as I please.  They even invited me out with their friends for an all-you-can-eat and drink meal of what they called “German pizza”.  (I don’t know what the real name is, but it looks like pizza, only with no sauce and different toppings.)

After a few weeks of exploring big cities and cultural centers, it feels good to be off the beaten path.  Konstanz is a tourist town, but most of the tourists are either German or Swiss.  It’s located on the shores of Lake Constance (the largest lake in Germany) at the intersection of three countries: Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.  On a clear day, you can see the Alps from across the lake.

On my first full day, I biked out into the countryside.  I spent the morning among rolling hills, vineyards, and blooming fruit trees.  In many ways, it reminded me of being home. I visited a nearby island filled with small, independent farms and old churches.  My afternoon was spent wandering around Konstanz, exploring the old town and harbor. Compared to some of the grand old cities I’ve explored, it wasn’t anything to write home about, but still nice.

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One of the old churches on Reichenau Island (near Konstanz) that I biked past.

On day two, I took a day trip.  I pulled myself out of bed bright and early, found my way to the bus stop, and an hour later, I was in Zurich, Switzerland.  Most of my day was spent wandering around, exploring whichever narrow, cobbled streets caught my fancy.  Sadly, I didn’t do any traditional Swiss things.  No new watches or fancy chocolates for me… Switzerland is expensive and I’m on a tight budget.  I did spent a couple of hours in the city’s art museum, delighting in their national collection.  I lingered on the shores of Lake Zurich for a long, long time, soaking in the Alps and enjoying the fresh air.

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View of the Alps from across Lake Zurich

On day three, I did absolutely nothing. I mean that literally.  I stayed in bed almost the entire day, reading and binge watching Call the Midwife on Netflix.  Travel is exhausting!  It sounds weird, but it’s sometimes good to take a vacation from vacation.  I did venture out to the supermarket in the morning, along with a short walk around the neighborhood in the afternoon.  Besides that… the day was all rest and relaxation.

It was a bit awkward because my main contact was away from home during half my visit.  She returned to her hometown to help a friend shop for wedding dresses, leaving me alone with her male roommates.  I felt a bit out of place, but they were nice, and I mostly kept to myself.

Now, I’m on to the next chapter of my adventure.  After a great week in Germany, it’s time to turn to it’s neighbor: Austria.

Stay tuned.

Nuremberg and the Nazis

I didn’t know that history could be so… heavy.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived in Nuremberg and, after briefly settling into my hostel, hit the city.  As the sun began to set, I wandered around the old town, soaking in ancient churches, marketplaces, and the beautiful castle.

Then I did my research.

I knew that Nuremberg was an important city for the Nazis, but not much beyond that.  Before going to bed last night, I found some old photos that were uncanny.  They depicted Hitler, flanked by crowds of swastika-waving supporters, parading through the streets.  What bothered me wasn’t necessarily the pomp–I’ve studied history and have seen such photos before.  What bothered me was that the churches, marketplaces, and even the castle gleaming in the background of the photos were the same ones I had been admiring only a few hours before.

I dedicated my day to seeing Nazi-related sites.  My main stop was the Documentation Centre, a museum dedicated to the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.  I spent hours in the museum, going from room to room.  The entire exhibit was in German, but thanks to an audio guide, I was able to follow along in English.  I encountered the Third Reich in a way I never have before.  In American schools, they don’t explain all the steps that lead to Hitler’s rise in power.

Until today, Nazi Germany was just lines in a textbook or scenes in a movie.  It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I understand now.  I understand the political tactics Hitler took on his route to dictatorship–well, not all of them, but enough to appreciate his cunning.  I understand the fear-mongering.  I understand the purpose of the rallies–to whip up the people into an emotional fervor that keeps them from rationally realizing they’re being manipulated.  I understand the indoctrination of young people.  I understand the appeal of a unified country with a single, shared identity.  I understand the dehumanization of entire classes of people.

I understand… and I feel the weight upon my shoulders.  So many times as I walked through the exhibit, I wanted to break down weeping.  For the second time in my life, I feel like I encountered pure evil.

Pure evil is intelligent. It tells lies, it manipulates, it preys on fears, takes advantage of ignorance, and silences any voices other than its own.  The most dangerous thing about evil is that it disguises itself as truth.

And, God, the consequences.

The museum didn’t shy away from the Holocaust.  It hit it straight on, explaining in detail the different concentration camps, what they were used for, who went there, and how many people lost their lives to starvation, forced labor, biological experiments, and the gas chambers.  Millions of human lives exterminated, slaughtered, killed like animals.  I don’t know if I will ever forget the photos of the malnourished naked corpses piled in the dirt and grime.

Of all the Nazi’s actions, what disturbs me most is probably dehumanization.  I believe that people are made in the image of God, therefore the simple act of being human deserves dignity and respect.  Our humanity is what links us together–we differ in language, culture, and appearance, but at the end of the day, we are all human.  To deprive a person of their dignity is disgusting.  To strip away their humanity is disturbing.  But to slaughter millions of people… horrifying.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials took place after World War II ended.  For some reason, it was closed today.  But I did spend a few hours wandering around the grounds where the Nazis had their rallies.  The once-grand structures have fallen into decay–a remnant of history that Germany doesn’t care to preserve.  As I stood on the balcony where Hitler delivered some of his greatest speeches, I could imagine the scene: Banners waving, people cheering, thousands of soldiers in perfect regiments raising their arms.

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The platform from which Adolf Hitler gave some of his most stirring speeches at the annual Nazi Party Rallies.

I’ve loved my time in Nuremberg.  It’s a beautiful city.  I’ve loved wandering its historic streets and meditating in its grand churches.  What more, I’ve entered into–no–I’ve been sucked into history here.  I’ve encountered the past in a way that is so much deeper than storing away facts intellectually.  My emotions and deeper being have been touched.  It’s not often that I’m moved in this way and to experience it here has been incredible.

I’m so glad I came here.  Tomorrow, my adventures in Germany continue as I head south to the town of Konstanz near the Swiss border.  I’ve got an early bus and need to pull away from the blog so I can pack my bags…