Reflections on Cologne

I was shocked several yards out of the train station after mid-conversation with a friend I glanced up and saw the towering cathedral.  The service itself was, of course, impossible to comprehend.  I gave my best shot at singing along with the hymns, but even that was a crap shoot.   It’s not hard to understand why so many tourists visit the church; I’ve seen dozens of great houses of worship this summer, and this one ranked near the top.  It is unfortunate that so many stunning churches are treated as shrines for the dead and museums for the living instead of places for worship and education for congregants.

Exploring the city at night was a blast, and I had some of my most memorable experiences of the trip in that city.  But again, the city itself is not the cause of that, it was the people I was with and the conversations we had.

How was Germany?

Most of my experience in Germany was defined by those I spent time around.  That is to say that my experience was defined by 40-odd Calvin students.  I can’t say much about the German people or culture given that I spoke with only a handful of actual Germans.  Add this to the fact that most of our time was spent in the very international, secular city of Berlin and I was left with an experience that is akin to living with a bunch of Calvin classmates surrounded by the sounds of the German language.  The culture would be better defined by our experiences in other smaller German cities that are maybe less severely defined by WWII and the Cold War.

Choose your own adventure

This title describes the open prompt given and the content of the post.  That’s pretty neat.

For the past few weeks everyone has been staying up a little later than normal planning their adventures for the final week of the trip.  There are individuals and groups going to places as far away as Lisbon and Rome, Croatia and Paris.  I’ll be doing a more modest trip to the nearby Netherlands with my family.  Earlier this summer I was travelling to many of the places that others are going to next week, and those travels reinforced my suspicion that international travel isn’t necessarily the soul-enlightening and transcendent experience that I think western culture chalks it up to be.

My unsolicited advice regarding travelling to you and to the rest of the students in the program is to do what you want to do and do it with friends.  Listen to the advice of travel blogs and people who have been to those places, but ultimately do what you want to do and what interests you.  I hate cliches; that hurt to write.  While I didn’t do all of the ‘must-see’ things in Germany or anywhere else, I don’t regret it.  I didn’t come here to have someone else’s experience.

Characters

I’m answering the question, “what’s it like?” So here are some people that have defined the trip with their appreciable personality, philosophy, and appearance.

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We spotted famous actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise in Bremen several weeks ago sporting classic aviators and a trim short-sleeve white button-down.  After insisting that we address him as Ben (to protect his fame, of course), we compromised with “Com Truise.”  He proved to be nothing like the arrogant, egotistical character he often plays on screen.

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We found this male model and UFC fighter posing beneath a statue of a great general on his warhorse in Koblenz.  Despite inciting riots within our dorm room with pointed questions and probing critiques, we learned to appreciate Zac’s depth of knowledge in and out of the classroom.

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Here’s a group of vagabonds I stumbled upon while hiking near Dresden.  In the words of the one in the front right she’s “an arrogant pig and [the girl behind her] is a ditzy mermaid.”  These two young women have something of a riff developing between them. Previous blog posts written by a certain Genevieve and Madeline document this.  We spent a lovely afternoon taking in the vast plains, forests, and mesas of east-central Germany.

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On a different note, I met up with an old friend who was an exchange student in my home town for a year.  Lucie lives in Potsdam, a beautiful old city (an apt descriptor for most of the places we’ve visited on this trip) southwest of Berlin.  We spent the afternoon catching up from the past 4 years over ice cream and a bottle of the local brew.

So what has Germany been like?  As you can see, it’s mostly American youth and old cities.  Throw in a few enthralling stories from the Calvin professors, interesting German professors, nightly homework, lots of bread, and various embarrassing miscommunications, and that sums up the rest.  To be honest, it’s difficult to describe acutely what living here is like.  Most of the experience, in my view at least, has been significantly colored by group dynamics, which aren’t easy to write about to an audience not present.

The Holocaust Museum

At the end of the first day of tourism with the group we entered the Berlin Holocaust Museum.  I was physically drained from a day of walking, a bit of dehydration, and what may have been a bad case of food poisoning.  I was emotionally drained from transitioning from a 6 week solo trip across Europe to living in a dorm setting with 40 other students.  Here’s where I’m supposed to talk about how the museum made me forget my own feelings and become thankful for everything I have when so much worse happened to those affected by WWII and the Holocaust directly, but that didn’t happen.  Maybe that was selfish and callous, but that’s the way I felt.  I did my best to read the stories of those I at least felt some connection to, like scientists, Dutch people, or people from cities I’ve visited.  It was more of an academic experience than an emotional one.