Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Euro Diaries - Germany (Part 1)

This whole travel project started with an invitation I received to a class reunion at my University in Germany. We were celebrating 40 years after graduation (yep, that much time has already gone by). The idea emerged that if I am going to be in Europe for the reunion, I could plan for a little longer visit. From there the idea developed into using that longer visit to explore some of the centres doing interesting work in innovation. What followed was a long and complicated process of planning and logistics. Finally, I had itineraries, tickets, reservations and meetings more or less lined up. And off I went.
The first stop was in Dresden. After the long transatlantic flight I could have used a nap, but arriving in the morning, there was no chance of getting into my hotel room before noon. Luckily had my friends Jan and Heidi this situation predicted. They picked me up at the airport and drove me direct to their lovely house out in the green fields surrounding Dresden. The weather obliged with 28-30 degrees and I was seated in the beautiful sunny garden with drinks and light conversation. The sunshine helped me adjust faster to local time and after lunch I was driven by my gracious hosts to my hotel.
My first challenge was with getting an Internet connection. The hotel's system requires that you register through your laptop's browser including providing your mobile number. You then receive an SMS message with a code that you need to enter into the browser to gain access to the Internet. One small problem: my European cellular number needed to be activated and I needed the Internet to do so! There was no way to break this vicious circle without outside help. Luckily some of my classmates, who were staying at the same hotel, arrived soon after and I finally achieved connectivity courtesy of the “handy” (as the mobiles are called over here) of my friend and then class president Uwe.
Soon it was already time to go to the initial gathering of the class. I met the first group of three classmates at the hotel lobby. Two I could recognize immediately, but for the third I needed a while (and some hints) to do so! We took the streetcar (tramway) to our destination, a restaurant near the landmark Blaues Wunder (Blue Wonder) bridge over the Elbe River. The public transportation is excellent and Toronto could learn a few things from the Germans in this respect. Just as we were stepping out of the streetcar a violent shower erupted. We took refuge in the entrance of a bakery/café and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw hail rebounding from the street’s surface. So much for my weather expectation mid May!
 After the storm passed we finally got to our destination, a pretty restaurant overseeing the Elbe river. The other classmates were already there. Big round of greetings and hugs. To be completely honest, after 40 years I recognized 4-5 right away but could not recognize many others. Time had taken its toll on all of us and a few had even passed away. At a certain moment in the evening (and with my jet lag kicking in) I wondered what I was doing there among these almost strangers. But with the bier flowing and the taste of German food, long-lost memories emerged suddenly. Speaking in German became easier and easier. And by the end of the evening, I felt almost back among peers and friends. Then the first product of the meticulous preparations of this reunion was unveiled: a beautiful bound volume titled "Kompendium der HF2/68" with highlights from our student years, main reunions, two pages for each class mate summarizing their path in the last four decades. A nice touch: pages were also produced for those mates who were not among us anymore. Leave it to the Germans to organize something; the book was high-quality production with many photos in black & white and in colour. Many of the moving life stories told were also a witness of the turbulent times that followed the reunification of Germany and what they meant to an entire generation.

The next day had a full program. We started by walking through the garden of the Zwinger palace to the anchoring place of the river cruise ships. On the way I caught a rarity from the old GDR days: a limousine made out of 3 old Trabant cars! 

There we boarded a steamship aptly named "Dresden" for a short cruise towards Pillnitz. The conversations around the tables started removing the fog of time and replacing it with concrete persons, names and events. We steamed under the new bridge that for the sake of economic development has cost Dresden its UNESCO designation of "Human Heritage Site". The discussions were still very passionate about the subject. The steam machine was made visible to passengers and it was a jewel of mechanics

In Pillnitz we disembarked for a hike through the green hills where  we sang our first song from the songbooks (two no less!) produced specially for the occasion.

Our destination was a local winery. There we settled for a tasting of the wines with cheese, olives and copious amounts of freshly baked breads in a hall decorated with remarkable sculptures by an artist, who happened to also be the wine master's wife. The sculptures were beautiful and everywhere including the winery. The one displayed here is also a fountain; water drips leisurely from the woman's hair.

I wasn't sure what served as a muse to the other: the beautiful sculpture to the wine master or the good wine to the artist. Probably a case of mutual inspiration :)

The way back was punctuated by stops at a few Biergarten and ended at another nice restaurant on the bank of the Elbe river, where we enjoyed a merry dinner (with some more folks songs authorized by the restaurant personnel) and a celebration of life.
The next stages of the trip follow in Part 2.

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