Saturday, May 29, 2004

Memorial Day at Margraten

Today I had the privilege to accompany the Girl Scouts on their yearly task of preparing Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten for the Memorial Day ceremonies, which take place tomorrow.

The experience was just amazing.

I'm not even sure how to put everything into words. But I'll try.

First of all, the drive there is incredible. The Dutch countryside is full of rolling hills and there are charming villages throughout...not very touristy, but with plenty to see! I was so tempted to plead with the bus driver to stop so that I could get out and look at all the tiny little art galleries and antique shops. And some of the villages had very old and astonishingly beautiful buildings...the kind of buildings you see in the big tourist trap cities. I definitely want Lance to take a trip with me so we can stop at all those little towns along the way.

Once we got to the cemetery, the first thing I saw was the reflecting pool. The place was crawling with tourists, both American and European alike, and Girl and Boy Scouts everywhere. But despite that, I found the reflecting pool to be peaceful and somber, a beautiful reminder of the sacrifices that these brave men and women made during World War II. The statue at the reflecting pool represents the figure of sorrow with doves and a new shoot emerging from a war destroyed tree. The inscription at the base (which isn't visible in the picture) says, "New Life from War's Destruction Proclaims Man's Immortality and Hope for Peace." Behind the sculpture is the memorial tower, which contains the chapel.

There were also two walls that feature the names of 1,722 missing Army and Army Air Corps men. There are asterisks marking those who have been recovered since the construction of the walls.

The first thing I did was walk around the entire perimeter of the cemetery, taking as many pictures as I could of the grounds (I used my good camera too, so the digital camera only produced 8 decent photos). After I was satisfied that I had some good shots, I got down to the business of helping the scouts with their task - putting US and Dutch flags at the foot of each grave. Its a process that takes several hours, as there are 8,301 headstones. But there were a large number of scouts and a portion of it was already done by the time we got there. A special tool is required, which has spikes to put the holes in the ground deep enough for the flags to stand. So the Dads and some of the scout leaders were doing that, while the girls followed behind them with the flags to place into the ground. There were flower arrangements that also needed to be put out, sent by some of the families of the people buried there. I was responsible for making sure that the flower arrangements went to the correct graves.

While we were there, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands arrived. He comes every year to pose for pictures with the scouts. Dutch television crews were there, so I might possibly be on the Dutch news tonight.

I was also asked to help put Oklahoma flags out on the graves of those from Oklahoma. There is a man who has been doing this for years and he's too sick with cancer and he's had several strokes. From what I heard, he doesn't have very long to live. But he asked the scouts to continue his tradition, so I was handed some Oklahoma state flags and I carefully walked to each grave to look for the ones that said Oklahoma. And then I placed a flag there.

I also want to note that every hour on the hour, the bells inside the memorial tower would chime and carillon music would play for maybe 10 minutes...mostly patriotic songs and things like "Amazing Grace."

I was allowed to go on top of the memorial tower, which gave wonderful views of the cemetery and surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, I had run out of film on my good camera, so the pictures on the digital didn't come out well. The only one I saved was the view of the cemetery. The ones of the surrounding area didn't turn out so well.

I won't be able to attend the ceremony tomorrow, but rehearsals for it were held today and I think it's going to be very moving.We couldn't have had more perfect weather for this. It is in the mid-70's and bright and sunny (which wasn't good for some of the photos, but great for the task at hand). I guess it usually rains every year when the scouts do this, so everyone was absolutely thrilled that the weather turned out so wonderfully.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Awesome Aachen

Lance went off to participate in a couple of shooting tournaments today, so I took the opportunity to catch a sightseeing tour of Aachen with a group from base. Let me tell you, I have no idea why I waited so long to go! Aachen is very close and going by train is pretty takes 20 minutes to get there by train. I couldn't have spent the day with a nicer group of people. And we even had an Aachen native to assist with the tour...Nadja is my age and super cool. She was a lot of fun.

The tour was annoying enough at first. We spent quite a bit of time in Aachen train station while our tour guide showed us how to get our train tickets from the automated machine. It is the easiest thing in the world to do, but she wanted to make sure that each of us knew how, so she had each of us pretend to buy tickets so she could make sure we knew how to punch in the proper city codes and choose the right kind of ticket, etc. I was horribly impatient. I really wanted to explore!

Finally she was satisfied that we knew what we were doing and we set out. But not before stopping at a delicious bakery that had the most out of this world pastries! I wasn't even hungry, but I just couldn't resist. I could get so fat living here!

We didn't get to see much since it was a large group and there were small children slowing us people had different interests and we just couldn't follow the itinerary that was laid out for us. But I got enough of a taste to know that I want to go back to Aachen!

Our first stop was one of Aachen's theatres. Aachen has several theatres and is a world class theatre city. We only had time to see one theatre though, but it was closed, so we couldn't see inside.

Aachen has many thermal hot springs, so we stopped in an area where tourists are allowed to taste the water. The water is said to be medicinal if you drink it or bathe in it. I took a sip of smelled like rotten eggs and it tasted like hard boiled eggs. Not impressed. But it was very warm though; if you can stand the smell long enough, I bet it's nice to bathe in.

Before lunch, we mostly walked around to look at statuary and fountains. Aachen has some interesting statues. My favorite was the puppet statue, which features several moveable puppets and masks. There was a violin quartet playing near this statue...they played the most incredible music, so we stopped to listen for a few minutes. Out of all the street performers I've seen so far in Europe, that was by far one of the best. We stopped for about 20 minutes to do some shopping in this massive bookstore that had an International section. The books were too expensive though.

We split up at lunch time because we all have different tastes, but most of us ended up at a Spanish restaurant. They had an all you can eat buffet for the extremely cheap price of 4.90 (trust me, in Europe, that is a steal). The food was A-MAZ-ING. Seriously. Wow. I had the most awesome soup I've ever tasted in my life at this was a garlic and yogurt concoction. I imagine you're all wrinkling your noses, but it was seriously soooo sooooo good. I stuffed myself sick, but by then the weather was warming up nicely, the sun was out, and it was just lovely and perfect. We just had a very long lunch and just sat and soaked up the sun and enjoyed conversation. It was so great and relaxing.

After lunch, we headed to the Dom. I was very upset to learn that the Dom is in a lot of danger right now. The structure sustained some damage during WWII. Most of it remained intact, but some parts of it are very unstable right now and they're trying to rebuild it before it falls apart completely. It's such a gorgeous gorgeous structure, so it would be a shame for it to fall apart (in fact, if you look at my pictures, you'll see scaffolding on it and that is why). The Dom is so old (it was built in Charlemagne's time...around 800). Charlemagne is buried there. In fact, I saw his grave. His bones are actually encased in silver and gold, and then housed inside this very elaborate casket that looks like a fancy house. And that is encased in glass). His casket sits right smack in the middle of the cathedral...I didn't even realize it was his grave at first because it was so conspicuous. That is pretty unusual (most prominent people have sarcophagi in the wings of a cathedral somewhere, but not right in the middle and elevated as to be the entire centerpiece of the church). Also, the Dom has these really amazing mosaic ceilings and the stained glass inside is just incredible.

The Rathaus (government seat) is located right across the square from the Dom, and that too is an imposing structure. In fact, it sits up higher than the cathedral because Charlemagne wanted to remind the church that his rule was above theirs. But he couldn't say it outright, so he had the Rathaus built so that it was taller than the Dom. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to view this on the inside.

After our visit to the Dom, we stopped by a neighboring church, which was also Roman Catholic affiliated. Since the Dom was built for royalty (in fact 38 kings were crowned there and many royal weddings took place there), there was a parish church built in the 1400's for all the regular people. A good deal of this church was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1952. The contrast to the Dom is startling. While the Dom was just ornate and fantastically beautiful, the other church was very stark and plain on the inside. And I don't think it even resembled its former self, because the stained glass inside that church was very modernistic...not something that was created in the 15th century. And the old half of the structure looked drastically different than the newer half.

Anyway, that was mainly all I got to see, but I can't wait to return to Aachen again. It's an absolutely fantastic city, and the people are very friendly. And from what I can tell, there is great shopping and a good variety of restaurants. We had a really good laugh when one of the young boys on our tour (he's 5) was checking out a Vespa that was parked on the sidewalk. The owner of the Vespa arrived just then, and he grabbed the boy and put him on the seat of his Vespa, put the helmet on his head, and turned on the engine so the boy could "vroooooom" it. The man spoke absolutely no English, but we all still managed to communicate with each other despite that. The little boy was thrilled...his day was made. It was really cute.

Oh, and as an aside, I did speak some German today. I was quite proud of myself. I ordered everything in German and I was understood. And some people even spoke English back to me, so maybe my German wasn't that good. But at least I tried!

Saturday, May 1, 2004

A Visit to Monschau Cut Short

I have yet another update to share with you all. Lance and I took a day trip to Monschau today, except that we had a setback that forced us to go home early. But we had a lovely three hour visit.

Monschau is a little over an hour away. It's south from here, still in the North Rhine Westphalia region of Germany (the same region we live in), but you would never know it by looking at it. The city is worlds away from where we live. It's nestled in a mountain valley and it looks as if time has stood still...I know I say that about a bunch of places we've visited. But it's one of the few German cities completely untouched by war, which means that practically every building is hundreds of years old. Although it's odd to see television satellites sprouting up like ugly weeds on the rooftops of these ancient and charming homes. All the streets are cobblestone. Most of the houses are half timber. And raging through it all are the rapids of the River Rur, which you can still hear, even when you're standing on a mountain overlooking the city.

Lance and I arrived at Monschau around 11. It was a pretty drive, taking us through some charming little towns as we went deeper into the mountains, and taking us through Belgium for about 5 minutes. We parked at the glass factory, and there was a handicraft market going on inside, so we decided to stop there first. Of course, there was a lot of glass being sold. There were some really exquisite pieces, and of course those were the most expensive. But there was also some reasonably priced stuff that was nice too. I kind of wish now that we'd gotten something from there, but we plan to return to Monschau when Lance's sister comes this summer. Anyway, the inside of this glass factory now resembles a mall, with a food court in the center and little shops of craft items surrounding it. I don't know where the actual glass factory was even located. Supposedly you could go there and watch them make glass. But it might have been closed today anyway, since it's a national holiday.

After we walked around there, we found ourselves just meandering through the narrow streets in Monschau. There were many different directions you could go, so we just randomly chose one. It led us down a path that contained mostly private residences, but we saw a sign that would lead us to some ruins at the top of the mountain. I'm not sure what the ruins were of...there are already 2 castles overlooking the city. The ruins themselves didn't look like much, but we wanted to check out the city from above. So we climbed up some slippery steps (Monschau is very damp, it seems) that were very steep until we finally got to these ruins. And the view was absolutely astonishing. We could see a castle on another mountain on the other side of Monschau, and we vowed to go there later (no, you couldn't really see the castle from the town...the buildings are too crowded together to give you much of a view of surrounding mountainsides).

After our descent down the mountain, the church bells were indicating that it was noon, as was my stomach. So I told Lance we needed to find a place to have lunch. We ended up on the same street we had been on before, but we walked back to the center of town and went down another street which appeared to have a lot of restaurants. Lance saw one that said "creperie" on the side. And he is all about having some crepes (they are not always for dessert...they have both sweet and savory). So we went to La Petite Creperie for lunch. When I opened the door and we walked in, we were surprised to find that it was tiny on the inside (the "La Petite" should've given that away, don't you think?). This was most definitely a Mom and Pop operation. And it was run by a husband and wife team and the kitchen is right there in the open so that you can watch your food being prepared. We were motioned to sit at a table on the landing of this stairway...I have no idea where the stairs went to...I assumed the restaurant owners lived up there. But the place was a little crowded and smoky (not from cigarettes, but from cooking) and hot, so this is where our troubles began.

Nobody that was in this restaurant spoke English. We were prepared for that. I doubt they get much tourism from the English speaking masses, as you'd be hard pressed to find Monschau in most tour books of Germany (and if it is mentioned, it gets a few me, I looked. I have access to dozens upon dozens of different tour books where I work). So Lance and I had to speak German and we managed to get our point across. He managed to convey that he didn't want sauerkraut on his crepe (he ordered ham, salami, and cheese), and I was able to vaguely figure out what was being said when I was told that there was no more Cola Light (no, they don't have Diet Coke's Cola Light...altogether different), so I responded with "wasser, bitte." And of course, I was given fizzy water. Blech. But I'm actually starting to acquire a taste for it, since it's served almost everywhere. By the way, I ordered a crepe with tuna and cheese and tomato.

So we had to wait awhile for our food because there were only two people preparing it. But they had jovial conversations with the other customers while preparing the food, and good laughs were had by all. Although Lance and I didn't understand a word anyone was saying, so we felt a bit left out of the fun. By the time they got around to making our food, I noticed that my crepe was looking mighty oily...the tuna fish he put in it was packed in oil, not in water. Ugh! I didn't even think of that. So I ended up with a soggy crepe. And it was right about when I was in the middle of eating it that I started to feel woozy. And Lance complained that his eyes were burning. I couldn't finish my food because I wasn't sure what was happening to me...if I was going to be sick to my stomach or what. I was just feeling dizzy at that point. I get that way when my blood sugar is very low, but I thought eating was supposed to make me feel better.

Lance and I got out of there as quickly as we could, which, if you've ever eaten a meal in Europe, is no small task. I actually stumbled when I got out of my chair to leave...I couldn't really feel my feet. I had a feeling not unlike an alcoholic buzz, only much less fun. Once we got out of the restaurant and I started breathing in some fresh air, I was feeling a tad better. Lance's eyes also stopped burning. We had decided earlier that we wanted ice cream, so I agreed that I could stomach it and we got a table at an Italian eis cafe. I ordered a small spaghetti eis (basically it's a sundae made to look like a plate of spaghetti with vanilla "spaghetti noodles"...a mound of whipped cream is hidden under the noodles, strawberry "spaghetti sauce", and white chocolate shavings to look like parmesan cheese). It seemed evident to me as I was eating my ice cream that this weird feeling I was getting was manifesting itself into a migraine. So I told Lance that we needed to go home after we finished eating. He even had to finish my ice cream for me, and he had a huge sundae himself.

So after that, we said goodbye to Monschau and drove home. My headache got steadily worse as we drove, but I took a 2 hour nap when we got home and I feel somewhat better now.

As an aside, today is May Day here in of the traditions associated with this holiday is that young men place a birch branch at the home of a young woman that they love. So this morning at about 8:30, this tractor pulling a large cart filled with teenage boys and birch branches came down our street. Lance and I would never have noticed except for the extremely loud techo music that was coming from the vehicle. One young man hung a sign on a house across the street from us that had Snoopy and Woodstock holding a heart. As we were getting in the car to leave about an hour or so later, I noticed another sign had been hung on this house...a heart with streamers hanging from it. So the teenage girl living in that house apparently has two admirers. We saw similar signs on other houses as we made our way to Monschau. And the may poles are also out and colorful streamers hang from some of the trees.

Pictures of our travels to Monschau: