Mike Kearney

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Reflections on my trip to Germany & Switzerland

December 16, 2009 - January 5, 2010

Now that a couple of weeks have passed since my return, it seems about the right time to try and decide which things most quickly come to mind when thinking about Christmas, New Years and my birthday in Germany and Switzerland.

I was fortunate to have a smooth and uncomplicated flight from Chicago to Frankfurt overnight on December 16 – 17.  My main concern there was the connection in Frankfurt to my Hamburg flight.  The connection time did not seem long enough to go through Customs and Immigration and still make the plane.  As it turned out, there was no Customs, so after a brief stop with Immigration and the first stamp in my new passport, I was on my way to Hamburg.  This thought should not be concluded without acknowledging that my brother helped out a lot because he got me United Premier status, which allowed me to check two bags, get my boarding priority moved from 4 to 1 and move my seat from row 40 to row 17.  (More on this later).

Laura and Charlotte met me at the Hamburg airport.  What a welcome sight.  The last time that I saw them, they were dealing with an awful crisis and it was a great relief to see that they are dealing with it and recovering.  Our drill was to go to Appel and rest/sleep for about four hours, which was a good plan.  When I awoke, Charlotte took me to visit Buxtehude, a town near Appel.  I had previously thought that it was connected with the composer Dieterich Buxtehude, but as it happens, he was not from there.   The town itself, dating back to 959 on the Este River, was charming, its Christmas market was very active and the 16th and 17th century buildings were worthy of any picture book.  We stopped at the Buxtehuder Brauhaus (www.buxtehuder-brauhaus.de), where I had a beer and Charlotte had something more compatible with driving.  Laura and I had been talking about a book that I had been reading, “The Blue Zones”, in which the health benefit of Cannonau wine from Sardinia because of the high level of its flavonoids.  She purchased a couple of bottles of Sardinian wine for us to sample and we felt a lot better as a result.

Laura and Charlotte have two dogs, Biena and Jasper.  The normal daily routine is to take them for a walk, so we quickly settled down to that part of the day.  It was a wonderful way to see and enjoy the countryside and to note if the windmills nearby were generating electricity.

Laura did a wonderful job of planning and organizing events so that every day there was a new experience.  The next evening she arranged for all of her neighbors to join us for a dinner at a Hotel Restaurant Café in the Rosengarten Regional Park called Ferien auf der Heid.  (www.ferien-auf-der-heid.de).   That night they had a diverse buffet of game such as goose, boar, etc. with Gruenkohl and – a chocolate fountain.  There was quite a discussion of “The Night Before Christmas” and even a reading in Platt (Low German). 

Saturday, December 19, after selecting and cutting down a Christmas tree, we drove to Bremerhaven to see the German Emigration Center. (www.dah-bremerhaven.de).  They have constructed there depictions of the conditions that those people who were departing for other parts of the world, principally the United States, encountered during various periods of time.  I don’t have to tell you that conditions were a whole lot better in the 1920’s than they were in the 1860’s.  This museum won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2007.   We then drove to Doetlingen to see my friend (and eighth cousin) Joern Claussen and his friend Elizabeth where we had a wonderful dinner, some fine and delightful conversation wine before returning to under some adverse driving conditions because of the freezing rain that made the windshield wipers ineffective.

On Sunday, the original plan was go get up before dawn to go to the fish market in Hamburg and meet my former apartment-mate from Frankfurt, Helmut and his wife Ingeborg.  As it happened, that was the coldest - windiest day of my entire visit and so we made a midcourse correction and instead got together with them and Charlotte and her boyfriend Christopher for a buffet brunch on a boat in Hamburg harbor.  Helmut and I then did a walking tour of the Harbor area where the largest urban development project In Europe is underway including the new Philharmonic Hall that is expected to cast something more than 500 millions Euros ($750 million).   The largest model railroad layout in the world called Miniatur Wunderlad (www.miniatur-wunderland.de), is located there.  What a place!   It takes up two floors of a building and is not yet complete.  It now covers about 1,150 sq. meters (about 11,500 sq. ft.) and is projected to grow to over 1,800 sq. meters (18,000 sq. ft.).  It has 12 km (7.5 mi.) of track and is to grow to over 20 km (over 12 mi.).  It now has 890 locomotives and 14,100 cars.  It has 2,500 switches and over 200,000 figures.  Everything is a superlative.  They even reproduce night and day in the seven different theme worlds they display.  They use forty computers to run the whole thing with a control room that could remind you of Cape Canaveral.  I should not have been surprised that Helmut would know all about this because he has his own model train collection with some items on display and a whole room of his house filled with a layout.  I then took the train back to Bucholz where Laura met me to go to Charlotte’s birthday party that was already in progress with her friends.  One of the reasons for the trip was for all of us to celebrate birthdays together because Charlotte has hers on the 20th, Laura has hers on the 30th and mine is on January 2.  We had lamented the fact that no one really is ready to celebrate birthdays that are around Christmas and New Years.

Monday morning, Laura lent me her car so that I could drive up to Clinton’s Sister City (Partnerstadt) of Erfde (www.erfde.de) in Schleswig-Holstein.  There I met the Mayor, Juergen Swazinna.  After a brief walking tour of the town, where I met the Police and Fire Chiefs, we had a delightful lunch with a wonderful pumpkin soup and then toured the towns in the area.  We exchanged gifts.  I gave him a book about Clinton and he gave me a history of Bargen/Erfde and a copy of an article about Tielen.  Bargen and Sheppern are incorporated into Erfde even though they are separated by a couple of miles, while Tielen is not, even though it is part of the parish of Erfde.  We also visited Norderstapel and Suderstapel as well as Friedrichstadt, a town that was built by Dutch religious refugees, the Remonstrants, in 1621, where we met Jan-Hermann Dau who has visited Clinton and who’s recently deceased father has compiled three invaluable books on the history of his town of Koldenbuettel.  When we returned to Erfde, we visited the Marie-Magdalene Church and met the pastor.   This church, which is first mentioned in the records in the 13th century, was burned – together with the other towns in the area - several times by the Dithmarschers in the 15th century, but is survives.  We then went to a dinner with the 17 members of the Erfde City Council and the Fire Chief and the Pastor where each told a bit about themselves and I described Clinton and how it came to be the Sister City of Erfde.  All expressed an interest in establishing connections with groups in Clinton.  On Tuesday we visited Jan-Hermann Dau and his mother on their farm at Koldenbuettel and then went to Husum on the North Sea coast in North Schleswig.  We toured this hometown of the poet and novelist, Theodor Storm.  I was fascinated at the markers all over town identifying significant buildings, including the house where the executioner lived (outside the town wall – of course).  It was especially interesting to see that the former High School there has been converted into a five star hotel (www.altes-gymnasium.de) by a successful graduate.    It is especially noteworthy that a teacher at this school, Mr. Eucken, won the Nobel Prize.  How many High Schools can claim that? 

Wednesday the 23rd, I drove to Bad Essen, a town near Osnabruck dating back to at least 1075, where a branch of a friend’s family from Jacksonville, Illinois and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin originated.   Since they had never visited the town, I wanted to photograph its wealth of half-timbered houses and personally thank Frau Carola Wientke for her help in tracing the records of the family in that town.  She had originally expected to be on vacation during that time, but fortunately for me – and unfortunately for her – she had so much work to do that she was in the office that day so we were able to have a nice visit.

Christmas Eve Laura and I drove to Marburg, a University town on the Lahn River, where her mother, Renate, grew up and where Laura attended Medical School.  It has been a town since 1140 and has both an old and new botanical garden.  It is a remarkably well-preserved medieval and renaissance town.  We visited the family of Laura’s Uncle Heinrich, a former professor at the University who was quite a collector and who lived in a large historic house nearby in Elnhausen.   Their Christmas was a very traditional celebration with real live candles on the tree and real fruit as ornaments.  It was particularly interesting to see how the candles were lit and later extinguished.  At 11:00 p.m. we attended the service at St. Elizabeth’s, (built 1235 – 1283) the purest example of Gothic in Germany.  This is a hall Gothic church, which means that the side naves of the church are the same width and height as the main nave.  The organ at the church was magnificent and played with great skill to complement the very talented choir that could send a chill up the spine.  The sermon was one of the best ever both in terms of content and delivery.  No Christmas Eve service that I have ever attended can match that one.

On Christmas Day, Laura and I stopped in Fritzlar on the way back to Appel.  This town is very interesting because – of course – of its history.  In 743, St. Boniface was trying to convert the Saxons from paganism to Christianity.  The Saxons worshiped an oak tree so St. Boniface began to chop it down.  At that moment a strong wind came up and toppled the tree, convincing the Saxons that his God was more powerful than theirs.  He then used the wood from the tree to build his church.  It should be noted that later Charlemagne had the same problem with pagan Saxons and used the same solution.  The town itself still has its town wall and about a dozen towers including the tallest surviving tower in Germany.  Any medievalist can only love a place like this.

Our activity on the 26th was another first for me.  We attended a dinner and Circus at the Zoo in Hamburg with very close friends of Laura, Charlotte and Ferdinand, Henning and Ulla Mueller. This show, called Pagels Dinner Zirkus in der alten Hagenbeck’schen Dressurhalle (www.dinner-zirkus.de), had circus acts between each course in the dinner.  They were proud of their performers from all over the world and put on quite a show.

Not to let any grass grow under out feet, on the 27th, Laura and I boarded the ICE (Inter City Express), the very modern, high-speed train from Hamburg to Basel.  Amtrak riders note:  We had six minutes to change trains to Swiss Rail in Basel and easily made the connection – even though I was very nervous about it.  These trains are silent, do not give any sensation of motion, neither bounce nor sway and are very fresh and clean.  Renate and Harry met us at the station in Bern and took us to their house situated high on the hill on the opposite side of the river overlooking the old town center of Bern.  I was particularly anxious to see Renate because of all the broken bones she had sustained in September and to judge her recovery.  What a relief to see her.  It was impossible to tell that she had been injured.  In fact some of her friends in Bern did not believe that she had been banged up as badly as she had.  Renate was a flurry of activity preparing food and making us comfortable.  Harry was doing his best to appear outrageous with his wry smile creeping out of the corners of his mouth.  Although I had missed a number of my swimming workouts, I got plenty of exercise in Bern going up the long hill from the town to the Saeger house.  The center of Bern is a United Nations World Heritage Site and this is a well-deserved recognition.  The buildings all date to the 16th and 17th century and have been lovingly cared for.   The newest thing in the central area is the new Bear enclosure constructed adjacent to the Tourist Office at the foot of one of the bridges into the town.  Every day, people line up on the bridge to see the Bears.  It is a beautiful enclosure, but they made one mistake.  In order to create a more natural looking environment for the bears, they planted a number of trees.  Unfortunately the trees only had trunks that were an inch or two in diameter and the bears knocked them all over.   The next day, I rented the headphones to take the waling tour of the old city and noted that they commented that the town was established in 1191 by the Dukes of Zahringen, the family that controlled the area and first constructed a castle and church.  Later as the city grew, they demolished the castle but did not touch the church, because” you can’t demolish a church”.  They have obviously not been to Clinton.  Since Bern was a protestant city, when it became the capital of Switzerland, they built a Roman Catholic Church for the delegates from the Catholic parts of Switzerland.   Later when the Roman Church declared the infallibility of the pope, they changed their church to eliminate all reference to Roman because even the liberal Swiss could not come to terms with that.  It is now known as the Christian Catholic Church of St. Peter and Paul and is right next to the City Hall.

The afternoon of the 29th, Martin and Sabina came down from Worms.  It was the first time that I seen them in five years and it was a great opportunity to catch up on changes in their lives.  Laura, Martin and I visited the Bern Historical Museum to see exhibits of the relationship between Bern and New Bern, North Carolina and Albert Einstein.  We should have arrived at the museum earlier, because they had to kick us out.  We did not see as much as we would have liked.  Since Laura’s birthday stated at 12:01 on the 30th, at midnight we opened a bottle of Champagne and started the celebration.  The next day Harry took us all for lunch at a very nice restaurant to further celebrate.   After lunch Martin and Sabina departed for Worms and Laura and I caught the train back to Hamburg.  All went well until we were between Hildesheim and Hannover.  There was an ice storm that day and the overhead line or catenary that carried electricity to the shoe of the pantograph of the train iced up.  The resulting arcing lit up the countryside and forced the train to make a significant detour, which caused the train to be delayed.  Charlotte and Christopher faithfully waited for us and when we got back to Appel at 3:00 a.m., we celebrated Laura’s birthday again with some Sekt (Champagne).

New Year’s eve Laura and I went to Hamburg with a friend of hers.  This evening was designed by Laura to be a surprise for me, evoking my hometown.  Everyone was sworn to secrecy until we got to the harbor and boarded the “Mississippi Queen”.  This is a boat that is a reproduction of a Mississippi sternwheeler (Schaufelraddampfer).   It is 62 meters (203 ft) long, 11.4 meters (37 ½ ft) wide with stacks that are 17.5 meters (92 ft) high.  It can seat 550 people for dinner and dancing.  The buffet table comes up out of the floor to the tune of the theme from “2001” (Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Richard Strauss).  It cruised the harbor for dinner and dancing joined by hundreds of other similar boats and cruise ships.  What a sight.  New Year’s eve is the night for fireworks in Germany, so around midnight, the diners migrated to the upper deck and saw a spectacular fireworks display all around the harbor.  An event not to be missed.  We spent the remained of the night in the Hamburg apartment of Laura’s friend before returning to Appel the next morning.

Just as in Bern, at midnight – 12:01 a.m. on January 2, 2010, Laura, Charlotte and I began the celebration of my birthday with the requisite number of candles (we were lucky not to have burned the house down) and some Sekt (Champaign).  The next morning, we met Helmut and Ingeborg at the Hamburg City Hall (Rathaus) for the tour.  This was an eye opener.   Hamburg was very heavily damaged from the bombing during the war, but the City Hall was mainly spared destruction.   It is richly decorated and well worth a visit.  There is a Clinton connection since the former Lord Mayor and now Member of the German Parliament, Hans-Ulrich Klose, was a foreign exchange student in Clinton, Iowa in 1954-1955.  We then toured the ruins of St. Nikolai Church.  It is maintained as a ruin to commemorate the horror of war especially in regard to Hamburg.  Helmut and Ingeborg invited us to their home after the City Hall tour for a nice visit where we were able to see his train set and hear of their upcoming vacation in Thailand.

Sunday January 3, 2010, Laura and I went back to Hamburg to visit the fish market.   This is a type of farmer’s market with the focus on fish since Hamburg is a port.  It is a part of town with some interesting characters, with musical entertainment in the large halls and a rich mixture of both sellers and customers.  We then visited the Moisburg Church, which dates back to 1242.  It is beautifully fitted out with an altar from 1520, a baptismal font from 1639, paintings from the 18th century, etc.  When we got back to Appel, Charlotte served the birthday cake that they had prepared for me that was decorated with the symbols of Hamburg, Marburg, Bern, Erfde and Clinton.  It was delicious.  I then caught the train to Wildeshausen to have another visit with Joern Claussen and Elizabeth.  We went to dinner at a local restaurant and had a very enjoyable visit.  The next day, I returned to Appel where Charlotte met me at the train station.

On Monday January 4, Laura, Charlotte and I were invited for dinner at Henning and Ulla Mueller’s.  They live in a school that they have converted into a very comfortable house with apartments.  Laura and her family lived there as renters when the children were younger and the children view Henning and Ulla as an additional set of grandparents with great affection.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 we all had to get up very early to go to the airport in Hamburg for my return trip.  Laura and Charlotte dropped me off in a moment tinged with some sadness because we all knew that it would be a while before we got together again.  Since the underwear bomber had done his thing during the time I was in Germany, there was the question in my mind about the new security measures.  Things got off to a reasonable start with the normal screening with me doing through the metal detector and my carry-on materials going through the x-ray machine.  Things got a bit more worrisome at immigration control.  When the border agent was looking at my passport, the fellow next to him was having a problem with the passport of the passenger alongside me because the encoded information in his passport did not match the printed information for things as basic as his name.  I have no idea what happened to him because I was waved through and did not stick around.  As we flew into Heathrow, we had a front line seat view of the Thames and the landmarks that line it such as Canary Wharf, Tower Bridge, the giant Ferris wheel, St. Paul’s, Houses of Parliament – a great tour of London.  Heathrow was another story.  When we landed, we had to walk through a maze of windowless corridors that seemed to go on for miles.  It was a big surprise that, in spite of the fact that we never left controlled space, we had to go through the metal detector and x-ray again.  At the gate, there was another screening by distracted security people that I found to be totally useless.  The obvious problem is that they had not figured out a way to make sure that no one was carrying a bomb in their underwear.  The big surprise came when I was seated on the plane.  The stewardess came and asked to see my boarding pass.  She then told me that I would be moving.  Apparently they had oversold coach and so they moved me to the first row of business class.  This was undoubtedly an additional benefit of my brother getting me Premier status.  Boy do I owe you bro.  What a delight.  The seat could recline to a full bed.  The meal was served on linen and the utensils were real metal rather than plastic.  I ate filet mignon, asparagus and was served wine.  The only problem with that was the fact that I could only have a small amount of wine because I had to drive to Clinton when I reached Chicago.  Bill Cunningham picked me up at O’Hare and took me to Northbrook to retrieve my car.  I would like to have spent more time with him, but had to depart immediately for Clinton to catch up on all the things that had been waiting for me when I was gone.   It was a relief to arrive back at my apartment and find everything in order.  What a trip and what experiences.  

General Observations not previously mentioned

It is not surprising that Germany has been the #1 exporting country in the world until China, with nearly 16 times its population, surpassed it last year.  The investment in infrastructure has been substantial and is continuing.  An Autobahn can be found within 15 or 20 miles of almost anywhere in the country.  The quality of its roads is magnificent.  The same can be said for its rail system.  None of this comes cheaply, with gas taxes very high; very few people drive a gas-guzzler.  I did not see a single pickup truck or oversized SUV during my entire time there.

An issue that is still somewhat controversial in some quarters of the US is the treatment of historic buildings.  Throughout Europe that is great public support for the preservation and restoration of historic buildings and landmarks.  Europeans recognize that historic buildings are a part of their culture and identity.  They know that the historic fabric of their cities is important – even those parts that have no direct relation to their life.

There is a general lack of the clutter that seems to so often characterize the landscape in the US.  Signage is much more muted with very few billboards or pole signs.  A related observation is that Europe values its land much more than the US.  European countryside is protected from random development so development is more concentrated.  For example Bern, Switzerland has 19.9 square miles for a population of 122,658 for a density of 6,157 per sq. mile.  Marburg has 48.1 square miles for a population of 79,131 for a density of 1,646 per sq. mile.  Clinton, Iowa, on the other hand, has 38.3 sq. miles for a population of 27,772 for a density of 780 per sq. mile.  Clearly cities in the US such as Clinton could use their land much more efficiently and improve the quality of life in the process.

Even though Europeans complain about the quality of their educational system, the US would do well to approach the standards that exist in Europe.  International comparisons consistently have students in the US lagging their counterparts in Europe (and much of Asia) in most important measures of academic achievement.  My own experience there suggests that the typical European has much more serious interests than the typical American. 

Is Europe superior to the US in all ways?  Certainly not, but we should recognize quality and achievement where it is found and incorporate the positive elements in our own thinking.

Finally, all of this was only possible because of the planning and effort of Laura and support of Charlotte and I am very grateful for what they have done.   I hope that I can repay them soon.

Christmas 2008

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Bridget, Andrew and Patrick

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Bridget traveling with Dad

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Andrew traveling with Dad

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Patrick traveling with Dad

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