This June I emptied about 3/4 of my bank account to fund a trip to a place I didn’t care about. I did no planning, I had no interest in any particular sites or experiences, and I didn’t set out to learn much about the culture. My sister, dad, and I were going to Germany. And it was my idea.
Germany means very little to me, but it’s a place of great significance for my sister and father. Dad spent his time in the military stationed in Heidelberg and hadn’t been back since leaving in the ’70s. My sister believes her exchange experience to Germany in high school shaped her adult life. For the past five years I’ve been trying to find an opportunity when all three of us would be able to take off work and school long enough to go together. Finally, the planets were aligning for all of us to be free last June. Tickets were purchased, hotels were booked, German was practiced, and in mid-June, we were there.
We did manage to do a few distinctly German things, but our first priority was memory lane for my dad. Second priority was memory lane for my sister. Third priority was getting me one of those huge soft pretzels (the only thing I said I wanted to do during planning). Leftover time could be for new German cultural experiences.
The things we did for my father included touring his old Army barracks and part-time job, eating at an upscale restaurant in downtown Heidelberg he used to frequent, stopping at a garden café he went to with his mother when she visited him overseas, and walking the Philosopher’s Path of Heidelberg.
Every one of these activities came with plenty of stories that gave context for everything I had gleaned about my father’s youth. I was overcome with a sense of timelessness and love as my sister, Dad, and I reached the top of the Philosopher’s Path overlooking the entire city. It was the most memorable Father’s Day we had ever experienced. But it was semi-incidental that we were in Germany.
At the restaurants we specifically sought out, my dad looked around, explaining how things were different, how they were the same, and what significant things had happened over there or in that corner or right here. But did we discuss the difference between German and American service? Décor? Ambiance? Not really. I noted things here and there, but I was distracted by family history. It’s like we could have sat in Dad’s kitchen and heard all the same information.
The weirdest part of the trip was visiting Dad’s old part-time job. He used to work at the base cinema that has since been turned into the formal theater for the military community’s productions So, for one of the few nights we spent across the Atlantic, we saw an English community theater production of the Gershwin musical Crazy for You. Coincidentally, my dad and I had seen Crazy for You together before — my sister was in it in high school. Her production was better. (Although I will say it’s pretty interesting to watch a bunch of muscular women dance around as Ziegfeld follies.)
Since my sister’s experiences with Germany were more of a tourist nature to begin with, revisiting her memories at least gave us some built-in culture. We visited Neuschwanstein — arguably one of the three most famous castles in the world. I highly recommend seeing it if you ever visit Germany. The king who built it was imprisoned for insanity, and his persecutors used his house as proof of his mental instability. Think a mural of Jesus floating on a rainbow and a giant mural of woodland creatures (that Walt Disney based the artistic design of Bambi on). But, while we waited for our tour time, I didn’t bop around reading signage because I was wrapped up listening to my sister tell me about how when she was here as a freshman in high school, she got stuck in the rain and almost missed her bus.
When we went to Fussen, a nearby small town, she wanted to eat at a place that advertised selling “American Pizza” because the owner had been really welcoming to her while she was staying there on a business trip a few years ago over (what she didn’t know was) a Germany holiday. We complied — it was part of her history with Germany.
I was very pleased with my vacation to Deutschland. It was beautiful, I ate a ton of good food, and I learned a lot about my family. The question remains: did I have to go to Germany for that? The answer is yes, although I can’t quite tell you why. I didn’t try to understand any aspect of German culture, nor would I feel comfortable attempting to relate textbook culture to what I experienced there. Did I just use another country as a backdrop for my own American adventure? In some ways, it’s unavoidable to view other cultures from outside your own bubble wrap of personal culture, but shouldn’t we at least try?
Perhaps. And normally, I would really care. But, I’m just not worried in this instance. Maybe I missed my chance to really dive into observing German culture for the moment, but I can always read about it. You could make the same argument for learning about my family. I could have always just heard about it. But, if I had to decide which kind of education I’d rather be on location for, hands down it’s my family history.
And I might even get another chance with Germany one day. Or, maybe in twenty years I could be back with a niece, sitting in the garden café telling her about her grandfather and great-grandmother coming here. I could be waiting for the carriage to Neuschwanstein with her — not reciting facts about the architecture from a guidebook, but telling the story of how this was the place I almost had a meltdown about finding an ice cream cart because I hadn’t eaten in 20 hours. And how after I got a cone of chocolate and settled down, my sister detailed what running down the mountain in soggy flip-flops was like.
It was an unconventional European vacation to say the least, but it was ours, and all our expectations were met. I ate not one, but two big soft pretzels. Who could ask for anything more?