Show us the way oh Lord. . .

“Others have seen what is and asked why.
I have seen what could be and asked why not. ”

― Pablo Picasso

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(a statue of Christ on the Charles Bridge , Prague, The Czech Republic / Julie Cook / 2012)

What is it that sets us apart form the other creatures on this planet our ours?
Other than that opposable thumb business?

What is it that makes us greater, wiser, better. . .?

Is it perhaps our ability to be compassionate and kind?
Perhaps to reason and analyze?
Or is it is our capacity to be creative. . .that ability to dream, to imagine, to think and therefore to compose, to construct, to paint, to sing, to sculpt, to dance and to build. . .

The ability to even take that which has been ruined and destroyed, even by our own hands, and to remake, rekindle and renew. . .?

I had not intended to have such a serious minded post again this week but it appears that forces beyond my control thought better of my initial decision. . .

Today’s news is laced, once again with the heinous beheading by ISIS of another innocent bystander–another victim to their ravenous thirst for innocent blood. This time it was an 82 year old Archeologist taxed with preserving and saving the ruins of Palmyra.
It seems they held this gentleman for the past month, torturing him in an attempt to discover where the vast treasures of this ancient, and to some holy, site were hidden. He never shared that information with his captors, who knows if he even was aware of hidden treasure, so it was another case of “off with their heads”. . .

Here you may find a link to the full story as found on the BBC . . .
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33984006

In Charles Kaiser’s book “The Cost of Courage” which I shared in yesterday’s post, Mr. Kaiser retells the story of the Vichy Parisian Mayor, Pierre-Charles Taittinger who, following the invasion of Normandy which was the telling realization for the Nazis that their time of Occupation in Paris, as well as all of France, was drawing dangerously to its finale, approached the Nazi’s high commander, General Choltitz, with his final plea for the Germans to spare the city.

It was well known and documented that if Hitler had to relinquish the City of Lights back into the hands of the Allies, then they would not receive a city at all but rather one that had been razed and burnt to the ground. Every bridge crossing the Seine, as well as every monument from the Eiffel Tower to Napoleon’s Tomb had been wired with explosives. The fleeing German troops were to detonate and burn everything in their wake as they left the city.

Monsieur Taittinger implored the General one last time:
“Often it is given to a general to destroy, rarely to preserve,” Taittinger begins.
“Imagine that one day it may be given to you to stand on this balcony as a tourist, to look once more on these monuments to our joys, our sufferings, and to be able to say, “One day I could have destroyed all this, and I preserved it as a gift for humanity.’ General, is not that worth all a conqueror’s glory?”
The General replied, “You are a good advocate for Pairs. You have done your duty well. And likewise I, as a German general, must do mine.”

History tells us that the General was wise enough to know that by now Hitler was indeed a madman and that the war, with the Soviets now advancing from the east, was all but over and that it would not serve the furture of Germany, whatever that further may now hold, to destroy what the French held so dear. There is more to the story, a series of interventions and seemingly miraculous moments which spurred the Allied forces to march upon the city in the nick of time, but I suggest that you read that story on your own as it makes for fascinating reading.

When the church bells rang out echoing across the city, with the deep baritone bells of Notre Dame leading the way, sounding the joyful news of the liberation of Paris, the General was heard to say, “that today I have heard the bells of the death knell of my own funeral. . .” He had sent the troops out from the city with having detonated only the bombs of one of the train stations.

What is it about our splendors and our glories, those monuments we construct, build, make and craft from generation to generation. . . those tombs and treasures we hold so dear and so ever important? So much so that we feel the urgency and need of being tasked with their care, their maintenance, their upkeep and their eventual preservation?
Is it because we see that these manmade wonders are some of the tangible evidence of the better part of our nature? That despite our ability to destroy, to kill and to promote war. . .deep down we know that we strive for the good, the beautiful and the enduring?

These wonders of ours link us to our past civilizations. These monuments of glory, grandeur and beauty of both joy and sorrow allow us to see from where we have come, and in turn we are afforded the opportunity to show future generations the part of us which is better, kinder, gentler, more humane —that side which chose to give rather than to take?

So on this day, when another has fallen victim to a dark and evil menace spreading outward from the Middle East, I am left with the simple prayer, “Oh Lord, show us the way. . .”

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(Duomo di Milano / Milan, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

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(The Bascillica di San Antonio / Padova, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

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(Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore / Firenze, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

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(Basilica Papale di San Francesco / Assisi, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

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( Basilica Papale di San Pietro / The Vatican / Roma, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

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(stain glass windows in The Basilica of the Holy Blood / Bruges, Belgium / Julie Cook / 2011)

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(Notre Dame / Paris France / Julie Cook / 2011)

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(détail, Notre Dame / Paris, France / Julie Cook / 2011)

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(Eiffel Tower / Paris, France / Julie Cook / 2011)

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(the cross that sits atop the Eagles Nest or the Berghof overlooking Berchtesgaden, Bavaria which was once Hitler’s private mountain retreat / Julie Cook / 2013)

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(St Stephens Cathedral/ Vienna, Austria / Julie Cook / 2013)

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St Vitus Cathedral / Prague, The Czech Republic / Julie Cook / 2013)

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(Rose window, St Vitus Cathedral / Julie Cook / 2013)

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(A section of the Berlin Wall / Berlin, Germany / Julie Cook / 2013)

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(a section of the Berlin wall / Berlin, Germany / Julie Cook / 2013)

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(The Brandenburg Gate / Berlin, Germany / Julie Cook / 2013)

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(The interior of the new German Chancellory, the Bundestag / Berlin, Germany / Julie Cook / 2013)

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Exterior of the Bundestag / Berlin, Germany / Julie Cook / 2013)

The Spoils of War

“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Neville Chamberlain

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The above image is that of the former allied checkpoint in Berlin, one of three dividing check points, separating East from West or West form East, depending on your luck or lack of— It is the infamous Check Point Charlie. This is the view seen as one would transition from the free American sector to the Soviet sector of the east. On the opposite side of the placard of the young Soviet Soldier is an image of his same American counterpart greeting those traveling to the free West. Only diplomats or “tourists” with permission were allowed to travel to and fro—not so for Germans.

When Berlin fell to the Soviets in 1945, one third of the city had been destroyed due to massive bombing blitz. What remained of the once vibrant cultural city was divided into 4 sectors, sliced like a pie, remnants of a vicious war all going to the Soviets and the 3 major allies; the United States, the United Kingdom and the French. Thus came the deadly spawn of the second World War– the surreal existence known as The Cold War.

The Reichstag, the house of German government dating from 1871 which, in 1933, was a most likely ominous victim of Nazi lies and propaganda, mysteriously burned. The fire ushered in the insidious vacuum known as the Third Reich. But by 1945, as the Soviets powered their way into Berlin, the Reichstag was pummeled once again. Following was a time of neglect and ruin. By the reunification of 1990, the once proud piece of Prussian glory was fully restored, once again being the seat of German Government. Today visitors may view the remaining inflicted death wounds as the bullet holes, grenade holes, and charred remains are still visible–solemn reminders of a wicked past.

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From a window from within the Reichstag one can look out upon the River Spree which flows placidly through Berlin. Along the bank of the Spree is a painfully simple memorial dedicated to the 13 lives lost over the course of approximately 5 years as eastern Berliners attempted swimming to the free West. Tragically each attempt to swim across the expansive river was met with the resistance of a machine gun. Each individual cross represents those who were gunned down by East German Forces as they attempted to swim to freedom.

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Visitors today to a sleek modern Berlin may still see large sections of the remaining visible division of oppression. . .the infamous Wall which separated freedom of democracy from the crushing regime of totalitarianism.

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In March I wrote a lengthy post regrading my visit last Fall to Berlin entitled Taxi Drivers, The Wall and Hope
Today’s post’s intention, however, is not meant to recapture the moments of a trip or to showcase the sights of a now modern city which dominates the European Union, as it is home to the world’s most powerful woman, but rather I’ve chosen to use Berlin as but one small example reminding us on this Veteran’s day, this Armistice day, this Remembrance Day that we must be ever mindful that the cost of our freedom has been and continues to be exceedingly high.

Today’s post could very well feature cities throughout the world such as Beirut, Phnom Penh, Dresden, London, Sarajevo, Budapest, Osaka, Tokyo, Hiroshima… No matter the global location the results are always the same with the sad ending being that at the end of the remains of the day, following any war, it is always messy and terribly convoluted. There will always be fallout and nasty repercussions. All of which usually falls upon our military personnel to pick up the pieces the governmental leaders picked apart.

Theirs is the thankless glamorously lacking task of ensuring peace and safety as they are always the ones left to offer aid in the cleaning and rebuilding. They have been scorned, belittled, maligned, resented, shot, wounded, maimed, blown apart, killed and tragically, often, forgotten. And yet they continue doing their job(s).

As buildings, monuments and lands become known simply as the spoils of war, the easy pitiful pickings and crumbs which are greedily gobbled up by the victor, our servicemen and woman are often sadly the by-products of those spoils.

It is my hope that we, those of us who enjoy the forgotten work and sacrifices made on our behalf by the countless men and woman defending the ideals of freedom and democracy, can work to maintain an awareness never allowing any of our servicemen and woman to be a part of those crumbs, those spoils as it were.

Each day service men and woman are returning home from such far flung places such as Afghanistan and Iraq with not only physical scars and wounds of conflict, but most often, sadly, they return with the unseen aftermath, the mental and emotional anguish and damage that takes such a tragic toll–not merely on the warrior but also of his or her family and friends. Tragically it is those types of wounds, the unseen enemy that remains behind, that, we in the general populace, prefer to ignore as those wounds are not readily “fixable”.

Soldiers came home that way from both World Wars, from Korea, from Vietnam and now they come home broken and damaged from Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet we do little to nothing in the way of support, aid, or help. We live our daily lives with little to no regard to the fact that a conflict of “war” has been going on now in this country for the past 10 years. There is no consolidated war front back home, no ration books, no victory gardens, no nationwide civilian drive to promote the servicemen / woman and their families. No all out show of sacrifice and support from the nation left behind known as the “home front”

Times have certainly changed.
It seems it is now left to the wives, mothers, fathers and children of our servicemen and woman to provide the sweeping show of support that often goes unnoticed by the general population–that is until a day such as today, Veterans Day, rolls around. Then we all take pause to reflect, yet by Tuesday we are back to normal—that is for everyone but the solider and his or her family.

Freedom is never free.
May we not take it for granted on this Veteran’s day, or any other day. . .

I’m including a couple of links that may offer the casual reader of this post a place to begin if the desire to do more than reflect stirs within ones thoughts—-

http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org
http://troopssupport.com
http://www.militarysupportgroups.org
http://www.military.com/spouse/military-life/military-resources/how-to-support-our-troops.html
http://www.supportourtroops.org

Taxi drivers, The Wall, and Hope

I can’t leave Berlin quite yet without relaying one last tid bit to you.  Remember we were in Berlin for really only one full day.  Remember I am a sponge—I’ve got to soak it all in as quickly as I can!  On this one and only day in Berlin, I had to see and do as much as I could, without exhausting my cohorts.  Hummm…

I had  previously made reservations at the Reichstag.  Our appointment was for 11:30. The Reichstag  was/is an absolutely cool thing, free admission, ( must register on-line prior to visit), as well as extremely informative but that will have to wait to another day—Remember, we’re soaking up…..

We had a great breakfast at our Hotel (Hotel H10 Berlin Ku’damm—great place, I shan’t get into the review here—see Trip Advisor).  After eating, we headed to the front desk to ask for a taxi and if they had any recommendations for, say, a driver we could hire to help with a bit of an impromptu tour (we had that in Vienna—SUPER, but I digress…) .

The lady at the front desk didn’t seem to have anything off the top of her head so we just asked for a taxi.  When the taxi arrived the three of us clamored in the cab all talking at once.  I’m certain the driver was already regretting picking up the three very American touristy women.  We try to blend in, being as inconspicuous as possible, but sometimes our accents give us away. (Hi Ya’ll). We inquire as whether or not he would consider, say, driving us around a bit, maybe taking us to see some of the highlights before our designated time to be at the Reichstag.  “Nein!”

Boy, that was fast.  Well okay then, whatever…

As we start driving we attempt making small talk (say what you will about Americans who travel but I believe in kindness—no matter where I may be).  And after just a few miles of warming up to these 3 chatty women, the driver turns off his meter and tells us he will take us the “see the sights”.  Ecstatic we assure him we will pay him his fare and then some.

Now mind you this is a quick little jaunt as our window of opportunity was limited.  The first stop—The Wall!

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Now let me back up.  Remember how I told you in a previous post that I was a bit apprehensive about a trip to Berlin?  Well, I think in part, that all goes back to the fact that I am a tail end baby boomer.  Early on in elementary school, I was well aware of an East and a West.  The West was good, like us…the East was bad, not like us.    We lived with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation (same as today with, say, Iran or North Korea but people today seem to be a bit jaded or desensitized to the whole blowing up sort of scenario—but I digress).  That whole Bay of Pigs ordeal was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Khrushchev had bammed his shoes on the podium at the UN and we all knew the Soviets were not our friends.  Those very people of the East.

I can still recall the very real fearful thoughts I would find myself having at school—always during lunch, as I would see that dreadful Fallout shelter symbol hung on our cafeteria wall.  Where would we hide when they bombed us?  Would they make us get up in those closets under the stage where they normally stored the cafeteria tables??  Where was all the food and water we would need?  But then my small mind would assure my nerves that it didn’t matter because at the first sound of any alarm I was running the mile home to be with my mother because she would be home alone, and I couldn’t let her be home alone during a nuclear bomb.  Made perfect sense to my 7-year-old self.  Hence the grown up apprehension…

And then came the better memories.  The time of triumph…. 1987

Remembering President Reagan’s immortal statement to Mr. Gorbachev “to tear down this wall” and having witnessed a world away, that joyful moment for not only the German people but also for the World community as a whole– was monumental.

I was thinking back about all of that as our driver whisked us past Check Point Charlie.  “Wow!  Need a picture!” ……  Next he’s speeding down a street pointing out on our left the new sports facility/Arena—it was however what was to our right that had my attention.  There is certainly no mistaking what it is.   For several miles, we drive past it.  “It” is The Wall.  Long sections of concrete that abruptly stop, suddenly opening up to green space and just as quickly, more concrete—and so it goes.  A graffitied, spraypainted canvas of cement wall—to me, it is but a wonder.

Gone are the guards, the no mans land in between the two sections separating West and East.  The towers of machine guns, the miles of barbed wire, all gone.  Gone is the jump from normal color to monochromatic grays when leaving the West while traveling to the East.  Brilliant color is now available to all Germans as is evident in Berlin.

Here I am and here “it” is— now, for me to finally see… “The Wall”.   I’m actually here in person!!!  This is truly one of the most moving experiences of my life… I can vividly recall watching the news as distraught frantic families were shown separated by a cement wall that represented so much more than a mere structure on the landscape.  It was both sinister and infamous.

The area now is almost “park” like with pretty green grass, a beautiful meandering river —a river, mind you, that witnessed many lives taken in a moment of an attempted escape to freedom. The remnants of cement barriers now painted, graffited and decorated with vibrant colors and statements in all sorts of languages. 
I think it, The Wall, almost pretty.  It is a must see for all generations—a part of that “we need to be reminded of our not so nice past” in order to keep our future bright and always hopeful.

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WOW….. But as it was a very, chilly, blustery Autumn day, the picture taking was short lived, as we needed to hop back in the taxi and head on over to the Brandenburg Gate along with the Reichstag.

We tell our driver of how well Germany is perceived in the US.   But he tells us not so fast.  It may sound as if Germany is financially sound and doing so much better than the rest of Europe but that is not necessarily so.  He tells us of how he had worked in one of the major car manufacturing plants for 12 years.  Due to the poor financial times, it was closed and now he must drive a taxi in order to take care of his family.

It is at this point that he pulls out a beautiful picture of his wife and son.  His wife is expecting their second child soon.  He asks where we traveled from prior to Germany.  We tell him Prague, starting out in Switzerland and then Austria.  “Ah Switzerland and Austria, beautiful countries no?  But very expensive”— He shares a story.  His wife’s family, from Turkey, (they are Muslims) was gathering for a family get-together in Vienna.  They had all gone out for coffee— “just coffee, that was all we had and the bill was over 100€, do you know how much money that is for my small family now”.  That got us thinking.

He then asked when we had to be at the airport the following day.  We explained that our flight was around 1PM and we thought to leave the hotel around 10:30.  He then surprised us by saying that he would come get us.  We explained that we had a great deal of luggage (3 ladies, 3 weeks, do the math) so he opted to send a friend who had a larger cab.  We were deeply touched.

As we reached our departing destination we quickly gathered up 100€—thanking him for the tour, his time, his company and hoped he could use the money for his soon to be new baby.  He was noticeably moved.

The following day when it came time to depart Berlin, we made our way to the front desk for check out.  The woman at the desk asked if she could call us a cab.  She was not looking up.  We explained that our taxi driver from the previous day had promised to send a cab for us.  She suddenly stopped what she was writing and looked up at me, eyebrows raised.  In that rather sarcastic questioning way one does when one finds something being said quite incredulous, she slowly asks—“your taxi driver from yesterday said he would send someone for you here today?  She said it very slowly, word for word, as if I was suddenly hard of hearing.  Yes, that would be correct.  “Alright” she says with a bit of a sly smile, “Madam we will call you a taxi if this driver does not show up. It will not take long for another, do not worry.”  “Oh I’m not worried.  Thank you” I say with a smile and I make my way to the couch to wait.

A few minutes pass when a young man walks into the lobby and makes his way to the front desk.  I know immediately whom he seeks.  “I am looking for the Cook party,” he inquires in German.  The woman at the desk is almost dumbfounded.  We hop up and schlep all of our bags to his cab as he tries to help us.  As soon as we’re all loaded up we take off for the brief trek to the Tegal airport.  There is an incoming call. The caller is speaking German but I know exactly who it is and what he asks.  The driver, in broken English, tells us the call is for us.  It is our friend.  He tells us he is so glad his friend could be of service and that he wishes us well.  We are visibly moved.

Such a special send off.

We all seem to focus so much on what makes all of us different, forgetting what it is that truly makes us all more alike.  That is why I think travel is so important—makes such a big and diverse world a bit smaller and more familiar.  I will remember Berlin for so many things, but most of all, I will remember Berlin for the small gesture of kindness that was offered to 3 American visitors.

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