What would you do if you found a frozen mammoth?
I think we all come to this question at some point in our lives. Well, at least some king or duke or other really old authority figure did, according to my friend. And just what did he do with this massive chunk of animal ice? He had it thawed out, cooked to perfection, and then he ate the giant, ancient mammoth. This makes me wonder just how long it takes to thaw a frozen mammoth... and how many people it takes to eat one... and how one manages to cook an animal that massive. In any case, the people of the old days were very crafty and found a way to achieve all of these things. The one question that remains, however, is: Was that that the right thing to do? The mammoths had been long extinct by this time. Should the king/duke have saved it in the name of history, preservation, or science? Or was he justified in eating it?
Well, I think really everyone would answer that question differently. Me? Short answer: I would have eaten it, too. Long answer: First I would have put it on display in the town square and charged people to get their pictures taken with it. Then, I would have eaten it. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? How could I have chosen to eat something with such prominent, historical authority? Because, my friends, I believe that history is meant to be consumed, not preserved. Figuratively speaking, of course. We should be able to see it, smell it, touch it, taste it, and learn from it, but, at least from my perspective, we shouldn't try to make history live on, we shouldn't try to revive it, we shouldn't hold on to it, no matter how inspiring or beautiful or painful it may have been. Because everything deserves to rest peacefully.
The reason I bring this up is because I just spent the last week in former East Germany, being force-fed facts about things such as Goethe's favorite tree and how he dug up (what he thought was) his best friend's skull and put it on his desk. And, quite honestly, I don't think those little details make his work any more or any less impressive. Regardless, during my time spent in this cultural and historic hub of Germany, I was graced with the opportunity not only to hear many of such facts, but also to consume, reflect upon, and actively live in the historical space in which all of these things took place.
During the trip, which is a part of the Tufts-in-Tübingen Program, we were all given an individual host family to live with. My host family was particularly spectacular - my father spoke solely in jokes and my mother hung random things like peacock kites on the walls. The first day I arrived, my mother and I sat together in the living room for three hours, and she told me what it was like to live in the DDR. It was immediately clear how much the DDR time still affects the people living in former East Germany. My host family was very lucky, in that they always had jobs, a secure place to live, etc., both before and after the reunification. But my host mother explained to me that there are still many people in the east that are extremely bitter toward the west (and, I'm sure people in the west bitter toward the east, as well). But like I said, trying to live in history isn’t doing anyone any good.
Here is a quick summary of the trip:
Day 1 - Jena
The first real day of our excursion consisted of visiting a local school to talk with students in the English classes, taking a tour of Jena, and stopping for a few coffee breaks (because coffee is warm, and Germany is cold). At the school, Kenneson and I had the pleasure of chatting with the fifth graders, who asked us questions ranging from “What’s your favorite color?” to “Do you believe in God?,” in their already spectacular English. One of the sassy little girls made a friendship bracelet for me as an early birthday gift. It reminded me of Molly and Osrui and hair wraps. Later, after our first quick coffee break, we had a tour of Jena. Unfortunately, because of my (already demonstrated) lack of interest for detailed history and quickly diminishing attention span, I’m not such a tour person. So this made pretty much every day of the excursion quite a challenge. However, what I do find quite interesting about tours is not what the tour guide says about the past, but what the things he’s telling us about the past tells us about the present and what that will mean for the future. If you catch my drift.. (still really great at these English colloquialisms…)
Day 2: Buchenwald, Erfurt
As you can probably imagine, Buchenwald was kind of a downer. Visiting the former concentration camp was an opportunity for reflection and remembrance. It wasn’t an experience that can be written on paper (or typed in a blog) or captured in pictures. Because these visuals can’t accurately replicate the atmosphere at Buchenwald, the eeriness, the feeling of walking on the soil where so many crimes to humanity occurred, the stillness of the cold air, and the absolute silence of the voices that were never heard. If you’re interested, you can see photos of Buchenwald (and the rest of the trip) here.
Luckily, the beauty of Erfurt was an upper. It’s a city I would love to visit again. While having the charm of a typical German town with the cute little buildings and a river running through the center of the city, Erfurt also has a more commercial section. In Erfurt, we visited what is easily the most gorgeous church I have ever seen. Inside lies the largest church bell in the world from the middle ages, Gloriosa, which is large enough for probably 12-15 people to stand under.
Later that night, Chris’s guest parents invited us over for dinner, and we talked more about the DDR and nylon bags and standing in line for bananas. After dinner, Chris’s guest father took us to a place where he used to play as a child and read us the Erlkönig (Goethe) in front of a statue of, well, the Erlkönig. It was dark and scary and cold outside, and at first I didn’t really understand what we were doing as the car stopped at the destination in the middle of the woods. Yes, I was scared. But it turned out to be, perhaps, the coolest and most authentic experience I’ve had yet in Germany. The story really came alive.
Day 3: Weimar, another Castle, salt thing
Weimar was yet another beautiful city. In my free time in Weimar, I got to see Goethe’s house and the Bauhaus Museum (which I thought was really awesome, but unfortunately small). It was really cute because the guided audio tour in Goethe’s house kept trying to validate Goethe’s hoarding tendencies… “This room would have been full of pictures and statues, much like the holding room in a museum. But Goethe didn’t like to have things simply for the sake of having things…” Okay, enough, really. He probably would have been on one of those hoarding reality shows, except for having too many statues of human heads instead of like millions of cats.
That night, we had a Thanksgiving dinner in Jena, which was executed surprisingly well. It was cozy to sit down with all of the guest families and eat an enormous turkey, just like we would have with our real families back in the US. I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to be surrounded by such beautiful and warm people on a day that was so special to me.
Day 4: Leipzig
By this time, I was so exhausted from the trip that my attention span was practically non-existent, and I absorbed little-to-nothing from the city tour. We did have lunch at this really great Thai restaurant, though, that actually had spicy food (a rarity in Germany). Then we went to this fascinating museum about the history of Germany (a must-see if you’re planning a trip to Leipzig). After that, we had another coffee break (typical), and then drove to a castle to have dinner. Oh yeah, and this was my birthday. So the best part was that there was a dog at the castle named Bruno and I got to pet him. I really couldn’t have asked for more.
Overall, the trip was exhausting, informative, and insightful. Over and over, I kept flashing back to my high school German class, where Jena was just a place on the map that was spelled similarly to my name. Never did I think that I would be one of the people on the streets, in the trains, on the buses, of that foreign city called Jena on that little map of Germany. You can’t ever really know where life is going to take you – you just have to be ready to go.