Looking back on our trip, I’d like to share some observations I had while in the Czech city of Prague. Prague was the first city we went to in the Eastern Bloc, and the differences were palpable. Loudspeakers and cameras left over as relics from Soviet rule still hung on light posts, and Prague had a very different “feel” to it than other cities we went to. Unfortunately, most of Prague was touristy and sterile. It took effort and an excellent tour guide to help us find “old Prague”- somewhere I never would’ve found by myself.
Prague has an interesting history that directly contributes to how the city feels. After Soviets took over in 1948, they stamped out all of Czechoslovakia’s Bohemian ethnic group and culture. The “Bohemian Empire” that the Czech people were so proud of was smothered by communist rule. After privatization in 1993, the Czech Republic was immediately colonized by Western companies and Prague became a tourist city. The vacuum left after privatization was filled so quickly with touristy stuff that the Czech people didn’t have a chance to reestablish the Bohemianism they had before.
Despite this, glimmers of a Prague that once was still shine through the touristy facade. Going to places like the Lennon Wall and Czech art installations over the city gives me hope that Prague will recover its quirky and counter-cultural identity.
While in Bremen, the Calvin group was privileged enough to be able to tour the Mercedes-Benz plant located just outside of the city. A brief stint in the visitor’s center allowed us to look at some historically significant vehicles, including the first car ever made: the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, a wooden, three-wheeled, motorized stagecoach invented in 1886. The real highlight of the visit was the factory tour. We started in the body shop, and witnessed huge machines unrolling sheets of steel alloy, cutting them, and stamping them into body panels. We weren’t able to see these panels welded to the car’s frame or painted, but we were fortunate enough to be able to walk the factory floor in the final assembly building. Parts like headlights, taillights, and the interior are installed, and the completed body and interior is mated to the powertrain in what is called the ¨marriage¨ or ¨birth.¨ The cars were then loaded onto a train or truck, and shipped around the world.
The final assembly building was interesting because much of the assembly was done by human workers, not machinery. We were told that these workers had to apply to a trade school run by Mercedes-Benz, and take classes for three years before workers were certified to work in their auto factory. The company is proud of how educated their workforce is, something that really made an impression on me. In the States, we have a ¨blue-collar¨ and ¨white-collar¨ workforce, with a large distinction between the two. In Europe, almost everyone goes to an institution for higher education: it could be a trade school, traditional college, or apprenticeship. This gives Europe a much more skilled and flexible workforce than we currently have in the States. From what I saw, the workers were stimulated by what they were doing. Instead of staying at one position all day, they rotated stations around the factory. It was nice to see that these men and women weren’t just doing time at a 9-to-5 job; instead, they seemed genuinely happy and loved what they were doing as a career.
Yesterday brought us out of France and into Luxembourg, a tiny country that houses part of the European Union. We came for the purpose of visiting the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, which commemorates the American lives lost during the Battle of the Bulge. Despite being in Luxembourg, the cemetery is technically an area given to the United States as a gift from Luxembourg as land to bury their soldiers. I found it ironic that we traveled almost halfway across the world just to visit soil belonging to the United States. However, the memorial was powerful enough to erase any of my cynicism about it. The cemetery is a field of white marble crosses numbering in the thousands- a sobering sight in itself. Even more sobering are the thoughts that accompany the cemetery visit: what was life like for these men back in the United States? When they enlisted, did they ever expect to return home? Did they understand that the enemy they were fighting were people motivated by propaganda and pressure to honor their country, just like them? When did they realize that they were never seeing their families and friends again?
The thought that Allies and Nazis had boots on the very ground we are walking on during this trip just 70 years ago is so hard for me to comprehend. The world’s largest war was fought right here in Western Europe. A lot of this trip has been experiencing history where it happened. We never planned to be in Paris soon after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, but we were lucky enough to experience history while it happened. At Place de la Republiqué, Parisians simultaneously rallied for peace while mourning the 17 deaths connected with the attacks- a suitable tribute and memory for those who lost their lives. In Paris, we didn’t just visit historical sites, rather, we saw history as it unfolded.