Tag Archives: History

Travel Guide: Dresden

Sometimes I like to escape my usual world for a while, just to feel my feet under me again. A beautiful way to do this is out in nature, literally just outside the door, and I do this often. But sometimes I like to go exploring in a different way, the way that reaffirms my confidence in walking independently through the world. I’m not a city girl, as much as I’ve tried to be (much more of a kopi at the hawker girl, a friend aptly said), but I like spending time in cities. I like watching people, I like getting lost, and I like the anonymity that comes with crowded spaces.

And this is how I ended up in Dresden last weekend.

I arrived in the rain and was delighted when the sun came out and kept the rain at bay for the remainder of my visit. My first impressions were everything that comes out of story books. Stone buildings, castles and churches, graceful bridges.

An extraordinary thing about Dresden is that everything has been rebuilt since firebombs destroyed the city in February 1945. This tells us something about what is meaningful to people and, I think, it tells us something about the power of place. These ideas stayed with me as I stopped on Brühlsche Terrasse (Brühl’s Terrace) to look back at the city.

View of Brühlsche Terrasse from across the Elbe

From there I headed for Neustadt, a neighbourhood located across the Elbe from Dresden’s Altstadt, or old town. First, I took a brief walk through Neustädter Markthalle where the vendors sell a variety of local, handmade, and interesting products. Unsurprisingly, the book exchange shelf, a mark of communities everywhere, was my favourite part.

Just around the corner is the Kunsthofpassage, a series of painted courtyards and art galleries dedicated to different themes. I walked into many of the galleries just for a look around and would have loved a seat outside at one of the many cafés, but I was far from the only one with that idea.

The rest of my afternoon walking through Neustadt was pleasant and the temperature slowly climbed, keeping me wandering down neighborhood streets that grew slowly more lively.

I spent the early evening sitting at a beer garden on the Elbe watching the sun, the water, and people enjoying their time outside. It seemed to me that the river is the soul of Dresden. This is where people play and gather and this, in my eyes, is what makes a place a home.

The following morning I stayed on the Altstadt side of the river and joined a walking tour to learn about the history of Dresden. We covered the time period from the Holy Roman Empire through present day, and I was again struck by how old Europe is. I am still tickled by this. Notable stops on the tour included the famous Frauenkirche, which was rebuilt using some of the recovered stone that had been part of a memorial after World War II . . .

. . . and the Fürstenzug, a porcelain tile mural first created in the 1870s that depicts the leaders of Dresden from 1127 until 1904 (the later part was an addition). Interestingly, the tour guide explained, the Fürstenzug survived the war with minimal damage because porcelain is heated to extreme temperatures during its production. As a result, the firebombing that destroyed the city did little damage here. I was intrigued to hear this, as well as to see the rather large club of bearded men (no joke) who were also there for a visit.

Our guide also took us through the inner courtyard of the Residenzschloss (residence castle) . . .

. . . past the Catholic church built by Polish king Augustus the Strong during his role as Elector of Saxony . . .

. . . the Zwinger Palace, also built by Augustus the Strong following a visit to Versailles . . .

. . . the Semperoper, Dresden’s opera house . . .

. . . and a mural celebrating life under communism that functioned as a wonderful piece of propaganda during its time.

As usual, there’s a great deal else to find in an old city with architecture that makes me wonder about the people who crafted it. These are stories I would like to hear.

To get out of the high winds that afternoon, I visited the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (State Art Collection), which is particularly known for the Grünes Gewölbe, or Green Vault. There is a historic Green Vault and a new Green Vault, which contains stunning treasures housed in a normal museum (which happens to be the Residenzschloss) rather than in a literal historic green vault. I’ve been to many art museums, but never one with such whimsical works from centuries ago. Intricate carvings on everything ranging from a cherry seed to coconut shell, for example, as well as works of porcelain, glass, and ivory. I was also particularly interested in an exhibit on Ottoman military tents, which should give you a sense of the range of treasures this museum has to offer.

The following morning I visited the Stadtmuseum (City Museum), which utilizes a collection of artifacts to told the story of Dresden from its founding through the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was especially interesting to see repurposed military items from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany), such as a bomb casing turned into a stove. The Stadtmuseum also highlighted Dresden’s Jewish history with the open question of how to reckon with history, a question that applies in so many societies in our world today.

By the time I needed to catch a train, I felt content with my solitude and comfortable enough with my surroundings to no longer feel lost. And by the time I returned, remembering my pounding heart as I arrived by train almost a year ago, I was fully glad to be back. It’s nice to go away for a while, and part of going away means coming home.

History Lessons

Last Monday I introduced our current topic, the Cold War, in my grade 11 history class. Timely.

“What do you think . . . ?”
“What if . . . ?”
“Is it possible . . . ?”

Once a week, we read the news together in my grades 8, 9, and 10 individuals and societies classes. And the we discuss why each piece of news is important.

“But why . . . ?”
“Who is . . . ?”
“What should we do?”

I don’t have answers for many of the questions my students are asking now, but I encourage the questions. I don’t always know where to direct them for more information, but I’m glad they want more information. Students have shown me social media posts that bother them and shared videos they’ve watched. They’re talking at home with their families and those conversations lead to more questions.

Most of the time, the best answer I can give also happens to be the most honest answer: “I don’t know. I never expected we’d be here and here we are. So I don’t know.”

One student nodded. “That’s exactly what my dad said.”

It’s eerie to be studying a topic that is suddenly a very different topic than it was when I first outlined this unit last spring. The world as we understood it mere weeks ago is not the same world that we are living in today. And as with every major change or transition, it never will be again.

“Do you think this will end up in history books?”

In graduate school, my classmates and I latched onto the idea of big H and little h history. Big H history is the history we learn, study, read about in books. It’s the history that moves and shapes the world, the history of leaders and power. Little h history is the history of all of us as individuals, the history of we the people that responded to the events around them. Little h history is all of us, our stories, but our names are rarely known.

Big H history is the one that repeats itself; little h history is the one that is viscerally real.

Understanding the past matters because the past created the present. Our behaviour in the present will create the future. Maybe tides are turning. And maybe the world will become a better, more peaceful place. Maybe “enough is enough” will finally be enough, and maybe open arms to these refugees will mean open arms to all refugees.

I never thought the world would get to this point. Yet here we are.

Travel Guide: Berlin

One sibling loved every moment while the other did not speak highly of the experience. Friends have visited multiple times, reportedly always leaving with a desire to return. I once heard a comment that it felt wrong for a European capital to be new and modern rather than old and charming. As for me, I’ve been reading a lot and the reading has helped put Berlin into context. It is a very complicated place.

Throughout my time in Berlin, I was in awe at its history, taken in by its spirit, and curious about what I would find around the next corner. There was an unpredictability to Berlin that I had not expected, an element of surprise that makes complete sense considering the significance and history of this city. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I was there in this place, which, not long ago, was a completely different place. People make a place and the people who made this one are amazing to me.

This is why I started my visit to Berlin in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood known today for its art scene but a neighbourhood with a much grittier history than that.

I stopped first at the Berlin Wall Museum (expensive but worth every penny) and the East Side Gallery. I wanted to understand the people who call Berlin home and the people who stood together to rebuild it. I wanted to understand the stories that people around the world want to tell about Berlin and what its separation and reunification symbolize to them. More than anything, I felt that Berlin reflected an attitude of deliberate commitment to a very clear choice, and I think the world could use more of that.

I recently read Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29 and it gave me a great deal of background information that I would not have otherwise had. Walking along Bernauer Straße and coming to the corner of Ackerstraße left me standing a little straighter, full of hope for the future, and deeply moved by thoughts of what it must have been like for the world to completely and utterly change over the course of a single night.

With that, it was time to find out more about the longer history of Berlin and follow a very knowledgeable guide through Mitte, the central district.

The stops that struck a particular chord with me were the memorial to the Nazi era book burnings . . .

. . . the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie (be aware that the Disneyland-like environment around it is just really strange) . . .

. . . the carpark area built over Hitler’s bunker . . .

. . . and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The guide suggested walking through it individually and in silence, which was a powerful experience. Part confusion and isolation, part a sense of losing direction, and part a feeling of being trapped with no place to go.

I retraced some of our steps the following day to consider Germany today and its role on the world stage. When I first told friends I was moving to Germany one of them asked, “How does it feel to be going to a country led by a woman?” I have to say, it felt pretty good.

As I wandered, I paused at two quiet memorials. I’ve written about memorials before and at the very least, these made me pause. It was evident that the same was true for others. (I also really like the German word for memorial, das Denkmal. Denken means “to think” and I don’t need to say any more than that.)

My last night in Berlin, with much warmer weather than when I arrived, I happened upon a Christmas Market as I walked along the Ku’damm to take in the lights and designer shops. Christmas Markets are scattered throughout the city and are normally all over Germany, but this year is not a normal year. Clear entry points with masks and vaccine proof, but it’s a small price to pay. I was glad to spend a little time there and glad for the energy of those around.

There’s so much more to see and do in Berlin, and I admit this post is a selection of highlights. I’ll certainly be back, hopefully next time without icy wind blowing down from the north. I left Berlin having gained a new sense of respect for this city and this country, a heightened awareness of what it means to work towards something important. I am very aware that I am a guest here in Germany, and truly grateful for the opportunity to know, to learn, and to try to understand.