GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: William White (Page 1 of 2)


I thought that Paris was big. Coming from Brussels, Dublin felt like a small town and Paris felt huge. But all bets were off when I made it to Berlin. In all of the cities that I had been in so far, I felt like I could walk around in them. That if I got lost I could walk in a direction until I found a landmark to make my way back home. This is not true for berlin. Vast squares and monumental buildings were tucked behind quiet streets, so that you stumble upon them completely by accident. It is a disorienting feeling.
With the other cities, they were often crowded around something, so that all of the monumental buildings were within shouting distance. In Brussels everything was crowded around the Grand Place, or the Royal Square. In Paris it was the Sine. Berlin just sprawls, irresponsibly dropping monumental buildings in places that one doesn’t expect.
But enough about the size of Berlin. After a few days I could manage it sufficiently enough, so that in the end it was really not a big deal.
In Berlin I felt the history of the city weigh down on me more than in any other, including Paris. Sure Paris had history, it is an old city. It is filled with vast palaces and the ornamental French architecture. But it never really felt real. It was almost too old, and I couldn’t relate.
Berlin was different for two reasons. First, it has been the focal point for Western History for the past 100 years, which makes it much more relatable than the royal history of Paris. Berlin played a major role in both world wars, and was the axis of the Cold War. I mean, the wall only came down a little more than twenty years ago, and the older Germans still have vivid memories about life during the Cold War. Second, the Germans have done a fantastic job of memorializing their history. They do not shy away from it or try to deny it. They face their history head on, and confront it in order to reconcile.
For example, one night after dinner we were walking along, joking and carrying on, when I saw a small bronze plaque, about the size of a Post it Note, slipped in among the cobblestones. On it was just a name, a couple of dates, and the name of a concentration camp. It memorialized the person who lived there that Nazis arrested, took to a camp and murdered. It stopped us cold. Almost immediately we all grew somber while we reflected about the life that was taken there. After that night, I started noticing them everywhere. Two here, then five there, the little plaques served as a constant reminder of what happened there seventy years earlier. That is the effect that Berlin can have on you. The history hits you like a wall at times, and you have to stop and take stock of exactly where you are.
Seeing the Wall itself has much the same effect. But I think even more than going to the Eastside gallery to see where the wall stands, it is much more powerful to just see the brick inlay that follows the 90 mile outline of the Wall cutting through a street that you go to cross. When you step on the bricks and then over them you realize that you just did what Germans were not able to do for thirty years. And entire generation did not see the other side until they were well into adulthood. Growing up I always thought of the Cold War as sort of silly, political posturizing that never came to fruition The Wall seemed to me to be a little ridiculous, certainly not harmful. But seeing it in person changed that. It had real consequences on Germany that people are still trying to cope with to this day. The way that Germany teaches about its history, unabashedly and starkly, helps them move on.

Walking along the beach in Normandy


Omaha Beach, Normandy

Walking along Omaha beach opened up a sea of emotions I can’t describe. Over 2000 young men were cut down in their prime among a hail of bullets on the very beaches that I walked along. They were my age, just getting on with their lives, and many of them never made it off of the sand.
As I walked along the beach, with children playing and dogs chasing sea gulls along the waters’ edge, I noticed that right along the sea line was a line of beautiful blue shells. They stretched along the beach for as far as I could see, and when I picked one up it crumbled in my hand.
I didn’t know what else to do when I thought about the reflections for this blog post, but I felt inspired to write. Now I am no poet, but I tried to capture what I felt when I contemplated that day. The young men that died that day were beautiful, and now they are remembered as eternally young. This is what I came up with to try to describe how I felt.

Broken Shells

they were washed by the waves,
and smashed against the shore,
what once were beautiful shells,
are whole now no more.

look down and pick one up;
feel the fragility, the life!
from afar a line of thousands
but close one sees the strife.

they flooded the beach that June,
died by dozens, then droves,
now they lay among the cliffs,
lovely shells in eternal homes.

so travel West, and soon.
go get in your car and drive
stand on the shore and breathe in the salt,
and know that you are alive.

we were washed by the waves,
and saved by the shore.
these beautiful, broken shells,
will be remembered forevermore.

Reflections on Ireland

On the plane into Dublin, watching the puffy white clouds that cover the country drift lazily below me, I formulated a question that I wanted to answer as I traveled throughout Ireland. What drove Irish creativity? It is a small country, and it has a population only about the size of metro Atlanta. Still, it managed to produce four Nobel Prize laureates in literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney; and sports a host of other artists, writers and musicians who have reshaped their respective fields. So what was it? The people? The history? The culture? The weather?

It’s complicated.

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The importance of History

Gravensteen, or the Castle of the Counts in Ghent. Tenth Century

I have a skewed sense of time. I think we all do. Time and history are reflections of where we grew up, and reveal values that we hold close.
For instance, when taking a walking tour of Ghent this week, the guide explained that this building was from the 16th century, or that the building over there is from the 13th century. It amazed me that the United States wasn’t even conceived of when many of these buildings were built. I think this made me understand a seemingly obvious revelation.
Europe is old. I mean really old.

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