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A Cure For Weltschmerz

“Weltschmerz.” That’s a German term that’s been adopted and used frequently by English-speaking journalists. It literally means “world pain”- a sadness at the suffering and evil around us and, I’ll add, a despair that comes from the inability to “fix” it. Over the last couple of years, the news of the day has frequently been so crushing in its weight on mind, body and spirit, that it almost takes one’s breath away.

My wife Marion and I moved from the U.S. to Britain in 2018. The main reason for our move was that we wanted to spend more time with my family in England and hers in Germany. We did this in 2018 and 2019. 2020 and the arrival of Covid changed all that. Compared to the personal suffering that many have endured, Marion and I consider ourselves lucky. Our Covid experience in Britain, like a great many people around the world, was a series of extended lockdowns. There were (and are) travel restrictions, with the resulting irony that Marion was unable to see her family for two years - our longest period without a visit, ever. Earlier this year, we in Britain became the “guinea pigs” for the government’s experiment of removing all domestic Coronavirus restrictions. Britain was one of the first countries to do so, and the world waited to see what would happen. The result was that we now have far more infections than we did previously. Cornwall, where we live, which had some of the lowest numbers in the U.K., suddenly had the highest, due to the lack of masks and distancing and a flood of summer tourists. What saved us, literally, was our high rate of vaccination. While infections and hospitalisations went up, deaths remained relatively low.

Last month we decided to risk our first trip to Europe since 2018. I say “risk” because many previous tourists had had their holidays cancelled due to one country or another suddenly becoming placed on a “red list,” resulting in the holiday maker’s inability to leave, or worse, to return home. Our eligibility to travel revolved around our ability to provide proof of double-vaccination as well as pre-buying tests to be taken on our return, with the threat of quarantine if the tests proved to be positive. We had made the trip by car several times before, but never during a pandemic, and never post-Brexit. Both made for a slightly changed experience. Here’s our story, with some photos.

Our route to Marion’s home town in Germany takes us across the entire south of England, from west to east, through the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, Kent, across the English channel to Calais, France, through Belgium and finally, to Germany. It’s about 850 miles one way. We prefer to break it up with stops along the way. Travelling is a lot like life - it’s not necessarily about where you end up, but about the journey you take to get there.

A night in Folkestone prepares us for an early Eurotunnel reservation. That way, we can spend a leisurely second day on the road, sightseeing. The pre-booked tunnel trip under the channel takes about 35 minutes. You simply check-in, stopping at U.K. and French customs to show passports - and nowadays proof of Covid vaccinations. Vehicles are organised by size. When it’s time to depart, you follow the queue and drive onto the well-lit, split level train. An attendant issues parking instructions, and moments later, the train is on its way to Calais. The ride always passes quickly. It feels like there’s just enough time to consume the pastries or cheese rolls you’ve brought along for breakfast.

On this particular trip we opted to spend our first night on the continent in Bruges, not all that far away from Calais - I’d say about an hour and a half - so, not terribly strategic in terms of breaking up the journey, but a fantastic destination in itself that is just too good to pass up. On our way to Bruges, we made a pitstop in Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French), somewhere I’d always wanted to see. The town and beach, of course, are the site of what Winston Churchill called the “Miracle of Dunkirk", the May-June 1940 evacuation of over 330,000 French and British troops who had become trapped on the beach, having been forced to retreat in the face of German Panzer (tank) attacks. Churchill ordered any boats available, large or small, to sail across the channel to rescue the stranded soldiers. The mission, codenamed Operation Dynamo, included 900 vessels in all, including fishing boats, pleasure craft and dinghies. About two-thirds of the troops were rescued from the harbour jetty, with another 100,000 picked up directly from the beach. Marion and I strolled along the jetty, and watched blue and yellow jellyfish the size of basketballs glide by like ballerinas. I collected a few small seashells - and a rather large, unwelcome piece of styrofoam - as we walked barefoot along the beach and through the grassy dunes. (Dunkerque actually translates to “Church in the dunes.”)

Just a little north of Dunkirk is Bruges, Belgium. It’s one of my very favourite European cities. I had been there once before, in the 80s, on a brief musical tour, and was delighted to share it with Marion, who, while extremely well-travelled, had somehow missed visiting this lovely city.

Bruges, like Prague (another lovely place) somehow managed to escape heavy damage during the Second World War. The result is that one can walk through the old town and be transported back a hundred years - or for that matter, five hundred! Bruges is often referred to as the “Venice of The North” due to its extensive, picturesque canal system. As it is in Flanders, the main language is Dutch.

We expected to spend a quiet day/night stopover here, but arrived to find the entire town taken over by a massive five-day cycling event! There were thousands of additional tourist-spectators. Streets were blocked off, and our hotel, which happened to be near the finish line, could only be accessed on foot. Marion managed to convince one of the event security personnel to let us drive through the first of a series of barricades, and from there we soldiered on, bouncing our suitcases along the cobblestone street to our hotel. As it turned out, this was not the only major public event we encountered. In nearly every town we visited there were some sort of Autumn festivities going on on to herald the coming of the season.

It reminded us a bit of our time in New England, where the coming of fall is always cause for celebration. We decided “When in Rome, er, Bruges, do as the Belgians do” and joined the party. Belgium is famous for food, most notably beer, chocolate and waffles, and none of these disappointed.

There are a great many good restaurants and cafes, and Bruges also offers some surprisingly high-end shopping, with eye-popping price-tags to match. (Sorry, Stella McCartney!)

The next day, we bid a fond “vaarwel” to Bruges, and motored on to Germany, stopping in the twin towns of Traben-Trarbach, located on either side of the Mosel River, in Germany’s famous wine region.

The Mosel is a smallish river, winding lazily through sunny, vineyard-covered hills, and dotted with picturesque cobble-stone villages. Many people enjoy Mosel cruises, which stop at the many villages along the river. I can see why. Life is a bit slower here, and people seem to like it that way. The food is excellent, and the wines, whites mostly, are divided into three categories - trocken (dry) halb trocken (half-dry) and süß (sweet).“Keep On Trocken, mama!”

A visit to Munich, or Bavaria in general, is always a treat. All the things that foreigners generally associate with Germany-Biergartens, Lederhosen, dirndl-wearing barmaids carrying armfuls of beer at Oktoberfest, castles, lakes, the Alps-are found here.

Although Munich is a fairly large city, there doesn’t seem to be a high level of stress. Germans work hard, but love their recreation time, and a sunny day will find the biergartens in the Englischer Garten, Munich’s enormous park, (bigger than Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York) full of families enjoying the great outdoors, the food, and of course the beer, which is arguably the best in the world.

On a hot day, some Müncheners may decide to enjoy the great outdoors naked, as clothing in the park is considered somewhat optional. The fellow over my left shoulder had just enjoyed a skinny-dip in the Isar river.

These surfers are braving the rapids of the Eisbach river, also in the park and adjacent to Munich’s Altstadt (old town). There aren’t too many places where one can surf in the middle of a city! Incidentally, the water here is not normally brown. The colour, as well as the high water level was caused by the recent rainstorms which also caused massive amounts of flood damage and loss of life in some parts of Germany.

Everywhere we travelled, we were asked to provide proof of vaccination before entering a restaurant or hotel. This took only seconds and proved to be no inconvenience. For me, mask wearing has become second-nature. I keep one in my pocket and almost automatically it goes on when I enter a building, and off when I go outside. In a restaurant, I take it off at the table. I don’t love wearing my mask. It occasionally causes my glasses to fog up, and too-short elastic straps bend my ears, giving me a strong resemblance to Yoda. Fortunately, I’ve yet to be asked to sign any Star Wars memorabilia, but even that would be a small price to pay for some additional protection for myself and others.

As I mentioned previously, this was also our first European trip, post-Brexit. It’s still early days as far as evaluating the long-term effects of Brexit on Britain, but our nightly news is often full of tales-of U.K. businesses suffering from staffing problems, food exports that are delayed in European ports to the point of spoilage, fisherman who don’t seem to be reaping the benefits they were promised, and musicians - whose European visits are limited to a maximum of two gigs - with no permission to sell their CDs or other merchandise. To put it mildly, Brexit is a mess. Though there is little doubt that the architects of Brexit will reap benefits, any long-term benefits for the British public in general remain to be seen. It’s also clear that Brexit won Britain no new friends on the continent, indicated by a couple of reactions to our English car. We were cut off by an aggressive driver, and once or twice drew open-mouthed stares from locals that made us feel as though we had just stepped out of a Martian spaceship. Happily, these occurrences were few, and overall we received the kind of welcome befitting well-behaved tourists.

Dresden was another first for both Marion and myself. Again, unbeknownst to us, we arrived in the midst of Dresden’s huge annual Herbst Fest (Autumn festival). Lots of people and a carnival atmosphere contrasted with Dresden’s spectacular classic architecture. Everywhere there was food, drink and music of all types. Dresden is historically known as a centre for the arts as well as for its amazing architecture, some of which dates back 500 hundred years.

Dresden Castle, one of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the city, contains one of the largest collections of art and antiquities in the world- amassed primarily by Augustus II The Strong (1670-1733), ruler of Sachsen (Saxony) and King Of Poland. The collection is vast and astonishing, despite an infamous one-billion euro heist of jewellery and other artefacts in 2019.

The Semperoper (opera house) is also an experience not to be missed. In addition to being one of the ten best opera venues in the world it is also a building of exceptional, finely detailed beauty, not found in modern structures.

As a side-trip, we spent an afternoon in the nearby town of Meissen, known for it’s famous porcelain china.

We visited the showroom where one might spend 70,000 euros on a peacock figure or 75,000 on a bowl of fruit. (We didn’t).

Like other towns we visited, Meissen was also in the midst of it’s own festivities-this one a wine festival. Again, lots of food, the local wines were flowing, and there was live music in the streets. Unlike Dresden, Meissen remains a small town, and despite having once been part of dreary, Communist-era East Germany, the town has since undergone a major restoration, regaining it’s lovely, fairytale village ambience.

It’s a sad fact that one cannot mention Dresden without noting its near-total destruction shortly before the end of World War II. Despite its great prominence as a cultural centre and lack of significance as a military target, 85% of Dresden was destroyed, with a loss of 25,000 civilians, in the February, 1945 attacks by British and American bombers.

The bombing has been described by documentarians as an “atrocity” committed to answer and prevent further atrocities. Aside from enormous loss of life, the destruction of culture and history are among the greatest tragedies of war.

We returned to England feeling refreshed and invigorated, having blown off the cobwebs of lockdown and the gloom of “weltschmerz.” Looking back over these photos of the fun we had, the beautiful places we visited and the lovely people we met, the events of the 1930s and '40s seem long ago and incongruous. Yet, impressions of modern day Germany are still forged based on films and documentaries of that dark period. Today, in many countries around the world, fair elections, freedom of speech and religion, freedom of the press and independent judicial systems are in jeopardy. As Winston Churchill famously quoted, “those who do not study history are bound to repeat it.” The truth is, anything can happen, anywhere; and that’s a great lesson for the modern world.



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