Reflections on Normandy

This past Fourth of July weekend, 2021, my husband Steve and I visited the five beaches of the World War II Normandy invasion in France. I felt at the time that once I returned home, I wanted to share the experience in a Blog. However, after several weeks of trying to process it all, I felt overwhelmed. Where does one begin? How do you encapsulate that much history, that much heroism, that much sacrifice in a simple Blog, and should a person even try? So much has already been written.

A memorial star left on Omaha Beach. We add a shell to the collection.

Would my words sound trivial? No wonder so many veterans find it difficult to share their stories. Yet, for my own sake, I wanted to put it in writing. There were some memories, some photos, some facts and quotes I didn’t want to ever fade from my memory. Some photos are from museums we visited; some quotes from books I browsed through in search of that personal, emotional connection.

Shortly after midnight, June 6, 1944, 13,000 paratroopers descended from the sky to secure their objectives and await additional troops arriving by sea. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower in charge of Operation Overlord, decided to invade in part because the weather was rough and Nazi planes were grounded. However, this also created complications for the Allies. The paratroopers missed their intended landing zones which caused some confusion on the ground.

            “I wondered where the heck I was when I hit the ground. I spent all night trying to find my way in the dark toward my rendezvous point near the coast, dodging enemy patrols the whole way.”

– Jan De Vries

            In the dark of night.

            Behind enemy lines.

            A movement in the bushes.

            A simple handheld clicker

             to know if it is a

              friend or foe.

            One click: Are you an ally?

            Two clicks: Yes!

Dawn breaks the morning of D-Day. Ground troops land across five assault beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword which stretch along 50 miles of coastline.

Three of the code names for the beaches were named after types of fish: Goldfish, Swordfish, and Jellyfish abbreviated to Gold, Sword and Jelly. Winston Churchill considered “Jelly” to be inappropriate, so it was changed to Juno.

The invasion consisted of 73,000 Americans who landed on the beaches of Utah and Omaha; 61,715 British troops landed at Gold and Sword; 21,400 Canadians landed at Juno.

Planes dropped 13,000 bombs before the landing, but they completely missed their targets, resulting in Omaha Beach becoming a horrific killing zone, with the wounded left to drown in the rising tide. (The movie “Saving Private Ryan” portrays some of the events that took place here.)

German bunker

            “This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness.”

 – Adolf Hitler

            “For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.”

– Edmund Burke, British political statesman 1729-1797

            “Oh Kitty, the best part of the invasion is that I have a feeling that friends are on the way.”

Anne Frank – Diary entry on June 6, 1944

Steve and I take a few days to walk all five beaches. I walk behind my husband, himself a veteran, and capture a few photos of him, lost in his thoughts. It was the same when we walked the paths at Gettysburg.

I find myself wondering what goes through the mind of a veteran when he visits places like this.

            “The soil of France is really a sacred soil. All those who follow the path of freedom must feel themselves penetrated by the spirit of camaraderie and solidarity which animated the soldiers of the Allied forces who fought along this road in 1944. The same unity is still necessary if we are to maintain respect for human dignity and freedom in the world and ensure peace for present and future generations.” – General Dwight Eisenhower

As we walk Omaha Beach, we pass by an older gentleman who is sitting on a stump alone, gazing out to sea over the dunes, with a far-away, wistful look in his eyes. I find myself wondering if he is a veteran – where his thoughts are taking him. A little later we walk by a memorial statue, and I’m struck by the similarity of what we had just witnessed.

After leaving the beaches, we drive back to the town of Ste. Mere Eglise, the first city in France liberated by the Allies.

The town square with its beautiful 12th century church was the scene of intense fighting, the night the paratroopers made their landing.

Paratrooper John Steele from Metropolis, Illinois (home of Superman) found himself caught on the church steeple, dangling from his parachute. Three hours later he was captured by German soldiers and taken prisoner. Four days later, he managed to escape and find his way back to the front line. The village of Ste. Mere Eglise chose to memorialize him and placed a replica of a paratrooper dangling from the steeple.

A film crew descended on the village in the early 1960s and produced the iconic movie “The Longest Day” on this site, which was later released in 1962, and catapulted John Steele to fame.

Scene from making of the movie
Inside the church which sustained much damage during the war
A beautiful stained glass window honors the memory of the paratroopers

Steve and I take the time to walk around the village square in front of the church, where there are various displays of old war photos of the town and quotes from various veterans. I snatch a few photos of the veterans with their grizzled faces and eyes that had witnessed too much pain and suffering.

There are various before and after photos of the town buildings, as well as old photos of veterans in front of the church. There are photos of G.I.s handing out candy and gum to the children and receiving kisses from young French girls. There are photos of soldiers helping the elderly. These were not cold-hearted killers; they were young men with kind, compassionate hearts, and a willingness to lay down their lives for the cause of freedom.

A few years ago, thousands of people descended on this town to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.

The day we visited the streets were quiet and peaceful and much more conducive for reflection. We enjoyed the feeling of having the town to ourselves to explore.

Flags are still flown in front of many businesses and homes
The people of Normandy have not forgotten.
The patisseries are always so inviting!
The local flower shop
A clever name for a local beauty salon

We ended our visit to Normandy with a visit to one of the large cemeteries with row upon row of white crosses. Once again, we were grateful to not have to deal with masses of tourists. A group of teenagers walked by laughing and chatting away, but for the most part, visitors were very quiet and respectful.

I walked between some of the rows and just wanted to stop in front of one cross for a few minutes of quiet reflection, to pay my respect and just to feel like I had made a personal connection.  One cross seemed to catch my attention – the cross of Jack Catlin from Oklahoma. I stood for a while and wondered about Jack. Was he an only son? Did he leave behind a sweetheart? Had they planned to marry after the war? He died an unsung hero, and yet I stood in front of his cross that day and honored him, along with the thousands of others buried with him. Words seem inadequate to express any kind of gratitude. Willy Parr (British 6th Airborne Division) said it well, “They gave up all their tomorrows for our today.”

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

Alone in a German Church

The year 2019 found us moving to Germany due to my husband’s new job assignment. Even though we were both retirement age, the spirit of adventure was calling. Who wouldn’t be excited at the prospects of living in Europe for three years? Oh, the places we could go…the things we could see! Little did we realize at the time that within a few short months there would be a worldwide pandemic and everything would literally shut down – well, almost everything.

The magnificent cathedral in Wiesbaden suffered extensive damage during the war

We soon discovered, that no matter where we went, one thing remained open – the church doors. The doors remained open, and the bells continued to ring, calling the faithful to worship. Of course, strict regulations were in place for congregational meetings. Social distancing and the wearing of masks quickly became a way of life, but the doors remained open throughout the day for passing tourists or for individuals seeking solace and quiet meditation.

Speyer Cathedral -“Why do you design such an intricate design of a bird for the top of the church spire, when no one will ever see it?’ an artisan was asked. “Because God will see it,” he responded.

As we explored various towns with empty streets, the church bells always invited us to step inside sacred walls for a few minutes of reflection. There is nothing that so defines the beauty and majesty of Europe as its cathedrals. As a passing tourist, you walk into these massive structures and you are instantly swallowed up in a cavernous sanctuary surrounded by exquisite stained-glass windows, gilded altars, wooden carvings of saints masterfully crafted, and priceless works of art and paintings of Madonna and Child. You are enveloped in flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches. The beauty and majesty of it all can almost be exhausting and overwhelming. I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain as he visited the art galleries and cathedrals of Europe: “We have seen famous pictures until our eyes are weary with looking at them and refuse to find interest in them any longer.”

Cathedral in Rothenburg ob de Tauber

 In all of the grandeur I have encountered in these places of worship, there has always been one thing that arrested my attention. Interestingly enough, it has been something profound in its simplicity. Each and every time I have visited one of these cathedrals, there have always been one or two individuals sitting alone, close to the altar, quietly meditating and praying. It’s a moving experience to walk into an empty, quiet cathedral and find a worshipper. Somehow it touches my heart; so, I’m sure it must touch the heart of God. Once these individuals notice the presence of tourists, they quietly get up and slip out, and you’re left feeling like you have intruded on sacred ground.

St. Ann’s Cathedral in Sulzbach – named after St. Ann, the patron saint of miners
Inside St. Ann’s
The town of Sulzbach where miners once mined for iron ore. They would make their pilgrimage to the church, walking all night in order to arrive in time for morning worship.

I enjoy taking walks in the little village where we live. It is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants and boasts three small churches. Although they are not cathedrals, they are beautiful in their own right. I stopped one day to take in the beauty of the tolling bells at the Evangelical church. A passerby stopped to speak with me, in perfect English, and let me know that I was welcome to enter the church, that it was always open. I walked in and discovered that I had the privilege of being one of those lone worshippers.

The Catholic church in our village of Edelsfeld
Our 800 year old Romanesque style church
Our Evangelical church

 I went and sat on the front pew and soaked in the simplicity of this little church and the beauty of the bells as they continued to peal their welcome. This was the same church my husband and I had visited for a Christmas Eve service, before the coming of the pandemic. My thoughts went back to that night. The church was packed and we had sat in the balcony, tightly scrunched in between strangers…our last such experience before social distancing became a way of life. We had been advised to arrive early if we wanted a seat. For a half hour we sat with other villagers in total silence. No one even whispered. Then the hour arrived for worship and the bells began to ring in their joyful invitation. We strained to understand the words of the minister as he shared the Christmas story. We caught certain words…Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus…come to Bethlehem. We felt a warm and beautiful spirit, although we couldn’t understand everything. I remember being captivated with the tree that decorated the front altar area. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was the simplicity of the tree and lack of gaudiness that attracted me…small white lights, red globes and white snowflakes. A brass ensemble played beautiful renditions of worship. There were several congregational hymns including my favorite, “Silent Night.”

Little roadside chapels can be seen all over Europe

This particular day, sitting there alone, was a wonderful time of reflection. If you’ve never sat alone in a church, I highly recommend it. You’ll be surprised where your mind and your spirit will take you. You will feel the Presence of God, once you quiet yourself. The contemplation of such an experience might actually terrify some people. They don’t like being alone with their thoughts before an omniscient God. Just remember…He is a God of love, full of compassion, and is described as a “God of all comfort.” If you come as a sinner, He is willing and ready to forgive. He is waiting for you with open arms. The doors of the church are always open. They invite you to come in and find rest for your soul.

“Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 NLT

Germany (Holy Week 2021)

My husband, Steve, and I visited a wooded path in Ashach today, located in the outskirts of Amberg, Germany. We were invited by our friend, Emma, to visit the Stations of the Cross that had been set up along the trail.

Children, as well as adults, were extended a special invitation to participate in the display. They were asked to submit drawings or artwork representing the Holy Week and the Crucifixion of Christ. These drawings were then displayed from the bushes and tree branches along the path.

The celebration of Easter is of great importance to the citizens of Germany. It seemed, at first, that the government was going to prohibit all church and family gatherings due to the pandemic, but the order was rescinded after a rather strong protest.

Holy Week arrived early this Spring, so most of the trees and bushes have yet to bud, but we did notice a few patches of violets and “liver plant,” as well as several beautiful butterflies that followed us.

At the end of our trail, as we came up on the last station, we were surprised to see that Emma had submitted a copy of one of her own paintings. It depicts a small finch with reddish blotches. The legend states that the finch attempted to pull out the thorns from Jesus’ crown, and drops of blood stained its breast.

In the far background is the church “Wallfahrtskirche Maria Hilf”

After walking the path of the Stations of the Cross, we drove back to the town of Amberg to visit the church on the hill that we had seen from a distance on our hike. Amberg was a Medieval city, first mentioned in 1034. It was an important trading center in the Middle Ages, exporting mainly iron ore and iron products. Next to the beautiful Baroque style cathedral is a Franciscan Monastery, located on what is called the Hill of Our Lady Help of Christians.

The church has an interesting history. It began as a small chapel built during the Bubonic Plague; also known as the Black Plague or Black Death. In the year 1634, up to 40 people a day were dying in the city. The local rector donated a painting of the Madonna and Child, and plans were made to build the small chapel to house the painting, in hopes that it would call parishioners to prayer. A few months later, the plague miraculously stopped. The news of this miracle spread far and wide, and soon pilgrims were making a journey to visit the painting and the chapel. In 1697 construction began on a larger cathedral that included the adjoining small chapel.

A series of stucco Biblical figures, dating back to 1717 line both sides of the sanctuary

The forecourt of the church is characterized by a monumental three-sided staircase of granite steps.

Fresco paintings on the ceiling

The interior of the church has exquisite reliefs and beautiful fresco paintings on the ceiling which describe many Biblical stories. Emma shared an interesting story of one of the murals that depicts a group of people and a dog lying close by. A very well-known artist was commissioned to do the paintings, but he had many students and understudies assisting him. However, only the commissioned artist was allowed to sign his name to the paintings. One of the clever students managed to sneak his name onto the dog’s collar. You can spot the dog in the lower left corner of the middle fresco.

The painting of the original Madonna and Child hangs at the front of the altar

A diorama of the original chapel

The front altar

Visiting the Stations of the Cross today, followed by a visit to the church, caused me to do some serious reflection. I think we have a lot to learn from the survivors of the Bubonic Plague. What was it that caused the miraculous end of the plague; was it not the prayers of the faithful?

 We have now passed the one-year mark of our own plague, Covid19. Things are not much better here in Europe. Now there is news of variants of the plague making an appearance in other parts of the world. Could things get even worse? My question is this: are we Christian believers praying and asking God to intercede for us to stop this pandemic? Or are we looking to our various governments to come up with solutions? I can guarantee you government intervention has its limitations. Man can only do so much with limited resources and limited understanding of this pandemic. Have you heard your pastor or church leaders leading in intercession? Are YOU praying, or are you just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best? God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he allows plagues to try to get our attention.

Like I said, today just caused me to do some serious reflection.

Emma and Her German Garden

IMG_4459First impressions are an intriguing part of life, whether you are experiencing new places or meeting new people. My first impression upon moving to Edelsfeld, Germany was that the residents of our village were not only gardeners, but AVID gardeners who took great pride in their plots of land. Even though my arrival came in early November, when most trees, shrubs and flowers had ceased their growing and blooming, my walks around town and seeing all the neatly cleaned out garden plots assured me that we would be in for a feast for the eyes come spring and summer, and we were not disappointed.

Another first impression was to discover that the German people are genuinely kind and friendly. Being new to this country and to the German language and culture, my husband, Steve, and I were amazingly blessed to meet Emma, a neighbor who lives just a few blocks away. Emma invited us to her Christmas party, sight unseen, based on an email I sent her asking if she would be interested in tutoring us in German. (This connection came about through a “chance conversation” with a total stranger.) We have been in Germany less than a year now, but already Emma has become a dear friend. We have enjoyed dinners, tea, hikes, shopping, plays and concerts together. Steve and I are especially fond of playing with her dog, Ila. Walks with Emma and Ila are not only a pleasure, but a learning experience as she shares her knowledge of native plants, culture and history.

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Shortly after arriving in Germany, I came across the book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” by Elizabeth von Arnim, written in 1898. This book reaffirmed my first impression about Germans – they LOVE their gardens! More about Elizabeth later, but that’s where I got the inspiration for this particular blog. I really wanted to document Emma’s amazing garden. Emma was the daughter of farmers, born and raised here in Bavaria, in the little village of Holnstein, a few miles down the road. Her grandparents were also farmers, so hard work and a love for working the soil came naturally to her. Growing up she shared in the farm chores, helping with the cows, chickens and pigs, bailing hay and harvesting potatoes. Once she was finished in her family’s potato field, she would jump on her bike and ride off to her grandparents’ farm to help dig for potatoes in their fields.

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Emma’s ivy covered home in early spring

Emma married and raised three sons here in Edelsfeld, where she and her husband built their home in 1978.  Her father did all the woodwork inside the home, as well as building the framework for the roof. The home is surrounded by a garden, and yard complete with goldfish pond. So…here we go! Come along and have a tour of Emma’s German garden!

We begin by walking out the kitchen door and past the patio table and chairs. Germans, as I believe is true of most people, enjoy eating and relaxing outdoors. Emma picks a plum off one of her trees, carefully removes the pit, and feeds it to Ila, who is following us around. Amazingly, Ila loves plums so much that she literally jumps up and snatches the plums off the lower branches of the tree, eating pit and all.

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Fruit is a staple in most German gardens, as well as vegetables; a carryover from the days not so long ago when people couldn’t afford to buy their produce. If you couldn’t raise your own, it meant going hungry. Besides plum, there is an apple and black bing cherry tree. I must add, every once in awhile our doorbell rings and we are presented with some warm apple fritters, or a slice of cherry or strawberry cake. Emma’s strawberries were some of the sweetest I’ve ever eaten! She grows blackberries, as well. Emma also harvests walnuts from her tree which she uses in baking Christmas cookies, and making caramelized nuts for salad dressing. Next to the trees is a large, open grassy area where her sons’ pony used to graze years ago.

Emma cooks and bakes with everything in her garden, which leads us to the vegetables…tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, green onions, spinach, beet roots, carrots, curry herb, rapunzel, rosemary, fennel, parsley, chives, thyme, and lemon grass.

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In Italy the zucchini blossom is filled with cheese and baked

And what German garden would be complete without flowers? Emma’s flowers are scattered around and in-between all the fruits and vegetables. I’m particularly drawn to the hollyhocks and she shares a humorous story from a friend of hers in Montana. The story goes that in the old days of “outhouses” it was customary to plant hollyhocks around them.  That way when ladies came to visit, they could politely and discreetly ask where the bathroom was by asking, “Have you planted any hollyhocks?”

 

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Wildflowers bloom in every corner, and Emma is quick to remind me that they are important for the bees; even the early spring dandelions are considered important for this reason. The dandelion leaves are used as salad greens, even in some of the nicer restaurants. Emma points out a yellow cone flower which is called a “sun hat” because of its shape. It is considered a healing plant. All the pharmacies have the drops from this flower available to help boost the immune system and it is used in ointments, as well. Another one of her flowers used in medications, creams and ointments is her calendula.

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The sun hat

Other flowers around the garden include tiger lilies, chrysanthemum, anemone, daisies, iris, hydrangeas, sunflowers, morning glories and an interesting blue flower called “widow in the green.”  A large patch of lavender is planted next to the roses to protect them from bugs. Tucked along a sidewall is a patch of thistle which is dried and used in flower arrangements. One other flower I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before is a lavender poppy. Emma reminds me that poppies are native to Afghanistan, and of course the pods contain opium which has had a thriving market in that country for years. However, the seeds from the poppy can also be used for a cooking oil, bread rolls and baking cakes. The more common orange colored poppy Emma refers to as the “Iceland Poppy” as it is one of the few flowers found in Iceland.

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The lavender poppy

I should mention, that Emma collects rain water for her garden, which I have found is quite a common practice with German gardeners. And so ends our tour of Emma’s garden. As I make my way back into the house through the kitchen, I am offered some freshly baked plum cake. To begin with, I am amazed that Emma still finds the time (and energy) to bake, after all of her gardening chores. I find her to be an extraordinary person and a delight to be with. She is a busy mother and grandmother, with some new grandbabies to visit; she is a High School teacher who teaches German, English and Math, and tutors the likes of Americans like Steve and me; she is an avid hiker and walks her dog every day, as well as walking her invalid neighbor’s dog.

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Some of Emma’s watercolor paintings she has designed for her book

She is the author of a children’s book that she illustrated with her own watercolor paintings, and is getting ready to publish her second book; she makes an effort to get to the horse barn several times a week to spend time with her Arabian, Mitrano; she is also a member of a local book club. I have to wonder…where does she find the time to read?

Emma exemplifies to me the “true German spirit”… appreciative of her heritage, industrious, hard-working, organized, friendly and supportive, and a great lover of her garden and nature. Steve and I feel blessed to have her as a neighbor and friend.

And now this brings me back to my original inspiration for this blog, the book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” This was a fun and relaxing book to read, but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, unless you enjoy reading long passages and descriptions of flowers and the joys and trials of gardening. I did find parts of it rather humorous as the author has a sharp wit, but basically it is a plotless book. The beautiful, descriptive language though, makes it a delightful read, and you’re certainly left with an appreciation for the German’s love of gardening and nature. It is also an interesting commentary on society in the Victorian age. It’s a fun book to read if you’re sitting out in your garden patio with a cold ice tea, which come to think of it…is probably where you need to be if you’re reading this blog!

Following are a few more photos of Emma’s garden, and some quotes from “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.”

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My days seemed to melt away in a dream of pink and purple peace.

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The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has traveled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever seen me sew or cook.

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If it were not for the garden, a German Sunday would be a terrible day.

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The servants wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit. It seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself – but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only – they are dumb.

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Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary to gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better.

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If Eve had had a spade in paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple.

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It is so sweet to be sad when one has nothing to be sad about.

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I felt so absolutely happy, and blessed, and thankful, and grateful, that I really cannot describe it.

 

Castle Ruins and the Valley of Death

Castle ruins are common in Germany. You can find them on just about every other high hill. However, my husband Steve and I recently explored one that holds special significance. The castle ruins in Flossenburg, Germany border the Czech Republic, and stand as a sentinel over the infamous Flossenburg concentration camp.Q+FLZVM8TeCItbBqNA27Rw_thumb_a0e

After a steep, rocky climb to reach the top of the hill, you then continue your trek over narrow granite steps to reach the summit of the castle itself. The residential tower on top of the granite rock, equipped with a fireplace, was located around 1100. In the Middle Ages the tower was rebuilt. These castles were always built on the pinnacle of a hill for security purposes and were the residence of the local town sheriff, or knight, who was employed to guard the surrounding villages. The walls of the castle were built with granite from the quarry located hundreds of feet below.

Upon arriving at the summit, there is an amazing view of the valley below and the town of Flossenburg itself, with its charming homes. There is a quietness that rests over the village, with the occasional ringing of church bells. Who could ever imagine that horrific atrocities against man had ever been committed in such a peaceful setting.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a12

At the beginning of our trek, my first observation and comment to my husband was that we were being followed by “my white butterfly.” He’s used to hearing this from me, no matter where we go. It just so happens that I have been followed by white butterflies for years. He turned to me and commented, “You DO understand that it’s NOT your same butterfly that follows you everywhere!”

“Of course it isn’t,” I assured him…but who knows…maybe it is.

We continued to explore the surrounding ruins and came upon an arch. Steve was quick to point out the keystone.

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Without the keystone, the entire arch would collapse.

After some exploration we made our descent into the valley…entering later into the “valley of death.” It’s hard to comprehend that such an idyllic, peaceful village was onceUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a22

the location of a notorious Nazi concentration camp.

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A short time later we made our way through the gates of the Flossenburg Concentration camp. The camp at Flossenburg was opened at the beginning of May 1938; its first prisoners were brought from Dachau. Many of these were political prisoners and hardened criminals.  Later, they were joined by thousands of Jews.  The violent criminals were often goaded to torment the other prisoners.The roll call ground formed the center of the camp. Every morning and evening the prisoners were counted here. Standing at attention, often for hours, meant an additional torture for the undernourished and inadequately clothed prisoners. A gallows was erected on the roll call ground so that executions could be carried out in front of all other prisoners.

One of the main reasons for the choice of Flossenburg for a camp was the significant granite deposits in the area. The aim was to make maximum use of prisoners’ slave labor to dig granite from the quarry to arm Nazi Germany. The stone they quarried was used to build many of the Nazi’s monumental buildings.

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“In the evening, on the return march, each of us had to carry down an enormous roll-stone on our shoulders, because these stones were used to surface the camp yard. My shoulder was bloodied and my jacket was torn open because these sharp-edged stones had been chiseled out of the rocks.” (Quote from a prisoner)

“All day long, we had to drag up boulders of rock, throw them down again, and then drag them back up. If there was frost overnight, then water was poured over the stairs. The next day, we had to drag the rocks up over the slippery ice. It was horrible.” – Frantisek Sulak January 26, 1945

“Although, I left Flossenburg as soon as I could, Flossenburg never left me. For us, former inmates, the events of our past became the foundation of our haunted lives.” – Jack Terry

(Photos and commentary are from the small museum located on site.)UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a9f

Inadequately clothed and lacking all safety precautions, the prisoners were compelled, no matter the weather, to excavate soil, carry out blasting of granite blocks, push trolley wagons, and haul rocks. Accidents were daily and routine events. Backbreaking labor, long work hours, freezing cold, severe malnutrition, and random SS violence led to the death of many prisoners. A work day in the quarry lasted twelve hours, interrupted only by a single break when a thin soup was served. The SS forced prisoners to walk in circles for hours, hauling rocks. Only a few prisoners survived. At the end of the work day, the prisoners carried the bodies of the dead back to the camp.

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The castle ruins can be seen on the hill

After touring the museum, we walked to the back of the camp, still followed by “a white butterfly!” I noticed there were a few carefully planted flowers, but the grounds were mainly covered by wildflowers…which seemed to me a silent memorial from the hand of God, himself. From a distance, we could see the surrounding guard towers.

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The  memorial chapel “Jesus in the Dungeon” was built in 1947 and attached to one of the guard towers. The chapel was built with stones from demolished guard towers.

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The path leading down to the “Valley of Death.” The crematorium is the small white building at the far end.  Center-left is the “Pyramid of Ashes.” There are memorials from many nations leading along the path.

An initiative by a Polish memorial committee led to the establishment of one of Europe’s first concentration camp memorials. This memorial site was laid out to resemble a Christian Stations of the Cross. The entrance is located above the crematorium. The pillars of the camp gate were moved there to to represent the beginning of the prisoners’ suffering. This path leads through the hollow called the “Valley of Death,” past the stations of the execution site and “Pyramid of Ashes.”

Throughout this walk you could feel a “holy awe” and I just fought back the tears. Those visiting the camp spoke in hushed voices. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of the ovens. It just seemed too sacred to be trivialized with a camera. On our walk back out of this sad valley, Steve and I were pleasantly surprised to find this memorial plaque on one of the walls:

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We had not realized this was where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had given his life, and were pleased to see that our government had honored his memory.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to pledge allegiance to the Nazi cause. He is most well remembered for his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” At the break of dawn on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. As they prepared him for his death, he preached his final sermon. His words were remembered, and later retold, by a captured RAF pilot: “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.” Only two weeks later, April 23, 1945, Flossenburg camp was liberated by the American Army.

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This sign was made by the prisoners to welcome their liberators

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Thanks to the treatment of the American military physician Frank Anker, twenty-five year old Rajala Pinczewska survived.

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The following quotes are all from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother – Christ is knocking at the door.

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When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

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The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them just as love of God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.

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The biggest mistake you can make in your life is to be always afraid of making a mistake.

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We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.

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Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.

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The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.

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So…according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “keystone” for preserving community is love. Without this keystone, the arch of community and society will collapse! Jesus Christ summed it up in the two great laws: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 ) When I look at this photo, I see one half of the arch as the first commandment and the other half as the second commandment, and the “keystone” is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who holds it all together, and upholds life itself!

I am very grateful to the nation of Germany for preserving these concentration camps and memorials as a reminder to us all of the importance of loving our God and loving, serving and caring for our fellow man. There is wisdom in learning from history.

By the way, the white butterfly followed us all day. Was it the same one? Who knows.

 

Tips for Shopping at an IKEA in Germany

 

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IKEA is a global company known for its ready-to-assemble DIY “flat pack” furniture, the innovation of its Swedish founder Ingrar Kamprad – from which IKEA gets its first two letters – the last two initials representing the two places where he grew up. (I didn’t know this, and found it to be an interesting little tidbit of information.) I also found it interesting that Kamprad began his business career at the age of five when he started selling matches to neighbors. Eventually, he began to sell other items that ranged from seeds, to fish, to Christmas décor. I’m fascinated with the stories of entrepreneurs that start out selling some small item from their garage and end up making it big in the world!

My husband Steve and I had shopped at an IKEA in Bloomington, Minnesota, but I don’t think that properly prepared us for our experience in Nuremberg, Germany. Before leaving on our adventure, I searched the internet to see if I might be able to find some time-saving tips. I thought that might be helpful as I was traveling with a non-shopper. I did find a few comments that made me feel a little uneasy:

“IKEA is one of those places that can save you a ton of money on home décor and furnishings if you make the most of it…or, it can make you lose your religion. Having a plan insures a successful visit.”

“You can always count on seeing couples fighting at IKEA. Be prepared for a breakup.”

“You haven’t really experienced shopping in Germany until you have gone to IKEA. It almost feels like you’re a mouse in a science project and you can’t get out once you get in.”

Steve and I had a plan. We wanted to pick up a nice desk/work table for my office. That was pretty much it. Simple plan. The other part of the plan was to leave immediately after his Christmas office party to head to Nuremberg. It is this experience that inspired me to share a list of tips with any other prospective shoppers out there planning a visit to IKEA.

#1. Under no circumstances, EVER, shop at an IKEA in Germany on a Saturday! (Maybe not an IKEA anywhere!)

#2. Under no circumstances, EVER, shop at an IKEA during the Christmas season! (If you do find yourself combining #1 and #2, you COULD very possibly lose your religion and your marriage – as previously warned.)

#3. Review #1 and #2

#4. While your husband is parking the car in the last spot, of the far corner of the back 40, don’t bother wasting your time trying to study the large layout map at the entry of the store thinking you’ll gain any advantage. You’re going to run into words that look like kleideraufbewahrung, schneidebretter, and zeitschrifensammler. Better to spend your time scouting out where the restrooms are.

#5. While you’re still waiting on your husband who is finding his way through the maze of thousands of cars, and a Christmas-tree throwing contest, don’t bother grabbing a shopping cart, thinking that will give you any kind of advantage. You won’t be able to get it up the escalator.

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#6. Once you relocate your husband and head up the escalator without a shopping cart, don’t think you’re being smart to grab another abandoned cart in the far corner when you reach the next level. No one, and I mean NO ONE else was pushing their cart through the throngs of people, except us! We grabbed a few small items to place in our cart just so it didn’t look foolishly empty. The first floor is mainly a showroom area arranged in attractive layouts. If you find an item of interest, jot down the number. You’ll need this later.

#7. If a small, panicky child comes running up to you with imploring eyes, crying “Mama! Mama!” – do not try to console the child in English as it will only make matters worse. Flag down the nearest store clerk. When she looks at you with a blank expression as you’re trying to explain in English that said child is lost, just point to the child and say, “Mama! Mama!” She’ll catch on quickly.

#8. Do not under any circumstances pick a lost child up in your arms and try to console them. When the distressed parents come running and see you holding their child, they might think you were trying to kidnap them. (I played it smart and resisted the urge.)

#9. When you are finished with your shopping and ready to pick up your selected furniture, you must stop at one of the computer kiosks and look up your item. When you are staring blankly at a screen full of German instructions, you just wait until you hear someone walking behind you who is speaking English, then you kindly grab them and ask for help. They will also be kind enough to tell you to take your information to the lady standing under the blue sign.

#10. When the blue-sign lady starts speaking to you in German and you don’t understand, try a different language you might know, such as Spanish. My husband tried this, and it worked! This young lady actually understood a little Spanish! Europeans are multi-lingual. So, if you do speak another language, it’s worth a try. Spanish is actually quite helpful in Italy.

#11. When you have finished your shopping, don’t just automatically make a bee-line for the shortest check-out line. It’s probably going to be the express lane, and you may have too many items to qualify. Fortunately for me, my observant husband had already found an appropriate line. Unfortunately, I had inadvertently cut a man off in the express lane and received a tongue-lashing in German. The nice thing was, I didn’t understand a word. He had a cart piled to the ceiling with flat-pack boxes. It was kind of fun to watch him when he, too, realized he was in the express lane and had to go looking for another line. This is not easy to do when there are five lanes with hundreds of people, and you’re pushing a cart with enough boxes to build an entire house.

#12. Resist the urge to stock up on cookies while you’re waiting in line. Once you get through the line (an hour later) there is still more shopping on the other side. There is a nice little mini-mart with a better selection of cookies, along with juices, cheese, sausages, and all kinds of jams and jellies. I am told the IKEA ginger snaps are a favorite. That will have to be on my list for the next trip.

#13. While in Germany, you need to take your own shopping bags – even in the grocery stores. While in line at IKEA, decide if you need to pick up one of their super-sized, inexpensive shopping bags. This may make it easier for transferring items into your car, and later when you arrive home.

#14. At this point, you’re still not finished with your IKEA shopping experience. It’s now time to go get a number and wait in line at Customer Service to submit your VAT form (Value Added Tax.) My husband estimated that we would be saving forty dollars by submitting our form. I was beginning to wonder if it was worth the forty dollars to have to stand in line for another hour to hour and a half. IKEA provides a very nice waiting area with comfy seats and even some foosball set up for your personal entertainment. However, when you are shopping on a Saturday during the Christmas season, you will not be anywhere near a comfy seat. There were hundreds of people milling around, and our number wasn’t anywhere close to the number being flashed on the screen as “next.”

#14. If you are lucky, really lucky, as we were – you’ll meet a nice American family while you’re waiting and enjoy a friendly visit. They blessed us with an extra number tag they had that saved us about a 40-minute wait in line. Later we found out…they’re assigned to the same military base where we are located, and within a few days, we met up again just like we were old friends!

Well, hopefully these tips will be helpful to anyone planning an upcoming visit to IKEA. When I was doing my internet search, I read that when IKEA first opened their store in Shanghai, China – 80,000 customers showed up! I wouldn’t be surprised if our visit to Nuremberg topped that record. Just joking, of course, but maybe not. One small glitch. When we got home with my desk/work table, my husband decided he liked it so well, he wanted one for his office, as well. So, we had to plan another visit to IKEA. This time we decided to play it smart. We decided to try out the IKEA in Regensburg, which is a little smaller store. We also shopped on a Monday. Well…it was WUNDERBAR! We were able to park close, managed to get to the café for a lunch of Swedish meatballs and potatoes, and even got a table by the big window with a “scenic view” of the Autobahn! (This would not have happened in Nuremberg. We wouldn’t have even been able to locate the cafe for the crowd.)

And my desk/worktable? We couldn’t find another one just like it, so my husband took mine! I didn’t mind, though. I got one bigger and better! I must say, IKEA furniture is good, solidly built furniture, and we are very pleased.

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First desk/table

 

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Second desk…bigger and better!

One last tip…

#15. Make sure your husband is handy, as mine is, at putting furniture together!

A Fork in the Road

In the way of a little introduction…

It was the summer of 2019. My husband Steve, and I, were sitting in our modest little apartment on the third floor of an older, red-brick apartment building in Rock Island, Illinois. A retired Army veteran, Steve was months away from retirement of his civilian job with the Department of Defense.  Some years before, I had taken early retirement from my teaching career. We had talked about various retirement options involving major moves, but we kept coming back to the dream of getting a cabin in Arkansas with a big front porch, some rocking chairs, and a couple of good dogs.

We had just finished watching a movie when I turned to Steve and casually announced, “We need an adventure!” A few days later, Steve came home from his job at the Rock Island Arsenal and surprised me with, “What would you think of moving to Germany for three years?” I didn’t have to think twice. I’ve always loved travel. Living in Europe for three years? What was there not to love about that idea? I would now be able to claim having lived on four continents. It was more than I could have dreamed when I had suggested an adventure. A position had opened up at the military base in Vilseck, Germany. Steve submitted his application, and that’s where it all began.

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Good-bye, Illinois

When Steve received the news he had been hired for the position, a whirlwind of activity ensued. We still had a furnished house on the market in Decatur, Illinois. Plans were made for the military to come and pack our apartment, as well as the house. Steve made plans to leave for Germany in mid-September, leaving me with a legal pad filled with last minute detailed instructions for packing, shipping of the car, closing of various accounts, etc. To complicate matters, I had already planned a mid-October trip to Peru, South America, which also demanded the full focus of my attention. My return trip from Peru would give me less than a week to prepare for my departure to Germany the early part of November.

Steve felt relieved that I would arrive later as it would give him time to find a place to rent. We both agreed we would prefer a house, over an apartment. Friends were asking me, “What if you don’t like the place he picks out?” It didn’t matter to me, one way or the other. It was a temporary arrangement and I knew I could be happy just about any place. My biggest concern was our health. Here we were retirement age and making plans to move to the other side of the world where we didn’t know a soul, nor did we know the language. Somehow, I found it all rather intriguing. Hadn’t I asked for an adventure? I comforted myself with the thought that if Abraham and Sarah could have a baby at 100 and 90, Steve and I could move to Europe at our age! Time and age are not a factor in God’s scheme of things. After all, we had prayed and asked God for wisdom and guidance, and the door had swung wide open. All we had to do was trust God and take a step of faith. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that you can experience the most amazing adventures when you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.  – Yogi Berra

I’ve always loved writing.  The power and imagery of words intrigues me. I’ve had various friends encourage me to write a blog of our life in Germany. Others have suggested I write a memoir, but according to my husband, only dead people write memoirs! 🙂  Be that as it may, I agree with my friend Rhonda’s take on it:

How precious are our days on the earth! How marvelous the journey through! Where do they go if not jotted down onto a page or held together in a song? Too much is lost and forgotten! And the dripping of the blade of ice hanging from the sun- drenched eve? The laundry flapping on the line, the dust that gathers too quickly on the bookshelves, and the brilliant sunrise illuminating the steam rising from the roof of the corncrib shed? Who will hold it still and sure for me, if not the page? The sea of fading memories is greedy to take the velvet voice of the three-year-old and the sweet things he’s said so sweetly. It dilutes the sight of his chunky hands and his quick moving feet. There is so much I would forget if not hung up for me on the forever-page. I feel we must write as much down as possible. – Rhonda Gunn Drain

So much is easily forgotten if we don’t hang it up on our “forever-page.” I’m reminded of one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “That day, that special moment, hangs in the art gallery of my mind.” I don’t ever want to forget those special moments in my life, so I choose to blog. If you choose to come along with me on this adventure…all the better!

I took my flight to Germany on November 7, 2019. My friend, Suzie, drove me to the airport early in the morning…early enough to see the most amazing sunrise. It’s one of the pictures that hangs in “the art gallery of my mind.”

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Good-bye, America!

 

Male vs. Female Driving Instincts (In Germany…but actually, just about anywhere)

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To begin with, let me just tell you that my husband, Steve, is a motorcycle aficionado. He finds great delight in motorcycle challenges that involve riding 10,000 miles in under 13 days. He claims it is painful and brutal, but soo much fun! I, on the other hand, cannot comprehend any situation in which those words would fit well together. And therein lies the key to understanding the difference between male and female driving instincts.

Case in point. Steve accepted a job assignment here in Germany, working for the Department of Defense. He arrived mid-September; I came a little later, arriving early November. So, it is fair to say he had the advantage of getting acclimated to his surroundings for several weeks before I arrived. I might add, due to his military training, situational awareness is one of his strengths. He can learn his way around in some of the most bizarre situations and remote areas of the world, in a matter of hours, or a day or two, at the most. I have not had the luxury (or trauma) of being thrown into the middle of the Alaskan wilderness and told to find my way back. So, I am truly lacking in that skill set. I think I would be looking for the nearest hunter’s tree stand and asking for directions. However, for a man, that is a sign of weakness and also causes you to lose some of your masculine hutzpah.

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Upon my arrival in Germany I was enchanted with this fairy-tale land; I wanted to absorb and record every detail of this beautiful country, and its people. We live in the quaint little village of Edelsfeld, which is fifteen minutes from the military compound. Other than the one-hour ride from the airport, my first outing involved the drive to Rose Barracks chapel on a Sunday morning. Steve is driving and thinking: It will take us fifteen minutes to get to the Rose Barracks chapel. Period.

I’m riding along and thinking: Wow! I love that little village nestled in the hills. I wonder what kinds of trees those are. I’ve never seen trees like that before. This seems to be an agricultural community. All the houses are built pretty much in the same style, cement block with stucco siding. All the roofs are tile with lots of skylights and solar panels. There are some windmills. The Germans seem to be very energy conscious. Lots of wood stacks and piled logs. Looks like maybe some of the homes are heated with wood. I see smoke curling out of a lot of the chimneys. I would love to take that little side road just to see where it goes. I LOVE those lace curtains in everyone’s windows. I’m going to have to find out where I can buy some of those. Oooh…that looks like a nice little shop. I need to find my way back there. Oh… that looks like a good restaurant, right next door. I love how the mist drifts through the trees. I’d like to try and do a watercolor of that scene. Those old barns are just charming. Oh…there’s a horse out in the meadow wearing a blanket… and on it goes. Mind you, I’m only thinking these things quietly to myself. If I were to verbalize all of this, I would have been left by the side of the road miles back, but you get the picture.

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Now, fast-forward to the week after I get my German driver’s license, approximately two months after my arrival. In case you are wondering what took me so long, I had to study a 98 page “Drivers Handbook and Examination Manual for Germany,” and learn 186 new road signs. Some of these signs have German words, such as Einbahnstrase (one way) and Ausfahrt, which identifies an exit. (That is one of the easier ones to learn!) Then of course, you need to learn how to convert Kph to Mph. There are guarded railroad crossing signs, and unguarded railroad crossing signs, distance to guarded railroad crossing signs, and distance to unguarded railroad crossing signs. Then there are posted signs letting you know you have 160 meters before the railroad crossing, etc., etc…and yes, you better remember that it is 160 meters because that will be on the test. You need to remember how many meters to stop before a crosswalk and a bus stop. You also need to learn that there are roads where POVs (Privately Owned Vehicles) are not allowed; there is the Autobahn (German version of the Indianapolis 500); there are Priority Roads; skinny roads (Steve’s term); super skinny roads; military roads (forbidden access); roads for cyclists and pedestrians only, and Rollsplitt – gravel roads. (GPS doesn’t know any difference. A road is a road.) Mind you, road signs are hard to remember when you’re cruising at 100Kph. If you ruminate too long on a passing sign, you’ll miss your turn. Well…you get the picture. It is quite overwhelming, but I study and I pass the test.

The first Sunday after claiming my driver’s license, we’re headed back to Rose Barracks for the Sunday service at the chapel. Steve says, “You’re driving.”

“OK, but you’ll remind me where to turn, right?”

“No. You’ve already been on this road 100 times. You know where to turn.” In my head I was calculating my response: That’s not possible. I’ve only been in Germany eight weeks; that is less than 100 days. Not counting round trips, that wasn’t even close, and most of those trips I was absorbed with trees, horses, and lace curtains. I didn’t say anything. It would take too long to explain myself.

“Well, maybe I should use the GPS.”

“No. Don’t ever rely on the GPS. It can lead you astray and put you on a skinny road, or a super skinny road, or a gravel road, or an off-limits military road.”

Me: Blank look on my face as I’m pulling out of the driveway.

“I want you to learn how to find your way in case you get lost some time. If you make a wrong turn, you’ll learn from your mistake.” (Somehow, I felt his military training was kicking in. I was being thrown into the wilderness to find my way out.) At any rate, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the idea, and if you’re not feeling comfortable about something, it can affect your judgment. A few miles down the road, I was pretty sure a left turn was coming up. Oops! There were three places to turn left. Rather than make a snap decision, I drove on by and found a place to turn around. I could feel the “eye-roll” from across the seat. I recalibrate and get back on the right track. A few miles down the road, a big yellow sign comes up. Yes, this is an important sign, but a little confusing. There is an arrow pointing to the town of Vilseck and another arrow pointing to the Vilseck Military Community. Somehow my brain fixates on the word “military,” and I envision myself taking a forbidden military road with live ordnance flying over our heads, and Steve screaming “Stop!” In the time it takes me to think through this scenario, I miss my turn. I must turn around and come back.

 

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The following Sunday, I get smart and insist on using the GPS. On the way back home, Steve tells me to make an unexpected turn, not shown on the GPS. I find myself on one of the “skinny roads” – skinny road meaning it is very narrow, with little room to pass and ditches on either side. “Why did you do this to me?” I ask, just slightly irritated.

“I wanted you to learn what to do in case you ever find yourself in this situation.” (His military survival training is kicking in again, and I’m not liking it.) He smiles. “Don’t worry. It’s going to get worse.” The skinny road then turns into a super skinny road. By now, I’m praying I don’t meet another vehicle or I will have to back up to Timbuktu. I’ve always loved adventure, and I’ve always enjoyed taking the road less traveled, but by now, I’m feeling a little stressed. Then it happens. We pass a magical looking, tiny little structure on the side of the road. It looks like a gnome house right out of a Grimm Fairy Tale. As I drive by, I see an open door with two wooden benches inside, with just enough room to seat maybe four people. It appeared to be a little roadside chapel.

“Wow! Did you see that?” I exclaim.

“See! You would have never gotten that surprise if we hadn’t come this way.” He’s right, of course. I make a mental note to myself: I want to come back here someday. I’m still thinking about the magical little chapel when I miss the next turn.

“Why weren’t you paying attention to the GPS?” Steve sighs.

“You’ve told me not to depend on the GPS,” I counter. Despite everything, I manage to get us home.

Tomorrow morning I’m taking my first solo flight to Rose Barracks. Hopefully, I don’t find myself on a skinny road, but if I do, I’m going to be on the lookout for the magical little chapel by the side of the road. It’s calling me back. I’m afraid my female driving instinct is here to stay. I hope I never lose that sense of wonder and adventure, but I also need to remember my husband’s common-sense advice and driving instinct: “Stay focused. Stay alert and maintain situational awareness.” Sounds very military, doesn’t it? In retrospect, I think a nice blend of the male/female instinct is probably the ideal. Balance is the key to a safe, but adventurous life.