Friday, July 15, 2016

#17a: Vietnam. The North.

I'll be completely honest: I never wanted to go to Vietnam. Well... in a way. It's not like I was drugged, blindfolded, and brought here against my will, but this place just never seemed near the top of mind when I imagined the world and what to experience. I'd heard from friends that it was nice, seen beautiful glossy photos in travel magazines and all that, but this never stirred up any real desire in me the way the Louvre, the fjords of Norway, or the pyramids of Egypt did. Its rain forests just didn't seem all that different than those I'd seen in Latin America; its cities seemed overcrowded and probably not all that interesting; its beaches nothing more special than those in the Caribbean which was practically my backyard (relatively speaking). There are times in life (frequently for me) where a man needs to learn how wrong he's been: this was one of them for me. Our time in Vietnam was perhaps the most memorable few weeks I've ever had.

We arrived in Hanoi after having read horror stories about the town. No rule of law. Crossing a street is suicide. Everyone is out to scam you. Not all of this turned out to be completely untrue, but this really did not diminish the visit. We checked into the Sofitel Metropol, a very decent hotel in Hanoi's French Quarter, and were greeted by French speaking Vietnamese women (even though I speak nether French nor Vietnamese, this gave a sense of opulence to the place that I can't properly explain). The pool was clean and quaint and the waiters brought fresh fruit and cocktails out quickly. This hotel was an oasis in the middle of the most hectic city we’d ever been. Hanoi is insane, but was also somehow charming. But after a few days, we were happy to leave.

Next, we boarded the train and settled into our beds for the night. The whistle blew, and the cars lurched forward as the engine began to pull us north towards Sapa. This was not a fast train. It crept up the river valley slowly and carefully resulting in the 150 mile journey taking up the entire night. And in the morning we were in Sapa. The day before in an urban spider web of scooters, telephone wires and pushy street vendors; and now surrounded by mountains, rice paddies, and Hmong village people – Sapa is a bona fide Asian paradise: the hillsides are all segmented into terraces paddied with rice, cows wonder around seemingly aimless through villages and fields alike, the family pet and milk source one day, a feast the next. Although Sapa seems among the most popular excursions out of Hanoi (based on it being plastered all over every tourism office we saw in the city), it is still peaceful and a welcome escape after having braved Hanoi.

And then there was the boat. Ha Long Bay. The place where the legends say dragons descended and formed this endless expanse of peaks protruding from the foggy waters. If you've ever seen a National Geographic about Vietnam, this is the front page. I'm not sure what I make of the dragons story, but dragons or no dragons, it was a sight to see. We had a berth for two on our “junk” which we shared with a few Brits, some Aussies and couple with whom I never spoke. The Aussies as it turned out were to be engaged one night - so I bought them all whiskeys and we moved to the top of the boat. Squid fishing is best done at night under the lights, so we took turns at this as the night progressed into quite a memorable one as we anchored under the stars in the bay. The stars began to move about the sky a little faster and the ship seemed to leave its anchor as I went drink for drink with an Aussie. I found this to be inadvisable.

In the morning I made my way down the narrow ship’s hall to breakfast from our cabin and I was greeted by my newfound Aussie and Brit friends with a jovial "good morning director!" Slightly confused, I looked at Mrs Grimes, who reminded me of my foot thumping on the deck of the boat (unfortunately right over our cabin where she slept) the night before. It then came back to me that among other things, I had been directing the group in song the night before (I believe this to "In The Jungle" from the Lion King, which I can't rightly explain). I’m not sure it’s anatomically possible, but I could swear that I was sweating whisky on our hike the next day with a 500 ft elevation gain under sweltering heat and humidity. Such is the cost of making Australian friends, I guess.

After Ha Long Bay, we returned to Hanoi for a flight down south to continue our Vietnamese adventure, which after all this, was only just beginning.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

#16: Germany. The Fatherland.

In the fall of 1941, William McCready, an Irishman from East Orange, New Jersey, wed a young German girl named Marian Heidrich at a small church in Montclair. This couple went on to produce three children: Ellen Elizabeth, John Harold, and Karen Diana, my mother.

I have always been fascinated by my family's history. In the small sleepy cemetery up the lane from my farmhouse in Bretzville, Indiana lays a good portion of that young German girl's family, and I can remember as a child my mom taking me from headstone to headstone, explaining the links I had with these ancient people who were at eternal rest under those graves, sharing stories which have been passed down for generations about each of them. Marian's Aunt Meta Partenhemer, the beautiful daughter of Philip and Wilhelmina, who died tragically young from tuberculosis in an upstairs bedroom of the old family farmhouse just down the lane. Or her great grandpa, Jacob Bretz, son of Phillip and Annie, the pioneering German farmer who put down roots in a small Indiana town which now bears his name. These stories always made an impression on me. The fact that these men and women who existed to me only as eerie black and white photographs on our farmhouse wall were real people that led their own lives was a truth that for some reason set in for me only after seeing their names on that stone, walking around the places where they walked, hearing their stories from those that were a few generations less removed from them than I.

In the early 1800's my German ancestors, like thousands of others like them, began sailing to America on ships from Europe to make new lives for themselves. They embarked from ports like Rotterdam, Le Havre and Antwerp, likely the most giant cities they'd ever laid eyes on until their few weeks long journey across the ocean brought them into the harbor of New York City  (this one being the ship manifest of the steamer which the Bretzes rode across the Atlantic in 1840... go ahead, try to find them in there). I'd like to picture my ancestors on the deck of that steamship being greeted by the Statue of Liberty, but they arrived 40 years before it was complete and were met instead by smog and long queues at the Port of New York's immigration office (Ellis Island had not yet opened its gates). The land they left behind them was a disjointed one: a lose confederation of sovereign states making up the German confederation (my family being from the Dukedom of Hesse), but revolution was afoot in Europe after the American and French ones inspired the peasant classes of Europe that they need not be forever tied to their land and ruled over by Lords, Dukes and Kings. Their own plot of land in the young state of Indiana on the American frontier was enough to entice them to pack their bags and leave. To finally return to the land that these brave men and women up and left so many years ago was something that I'd imagined for years. I have often pictured what the fields of Indiana may have looked like during their time; what those now overgrown ruts in our forest looked like when they served as roads for their horse drawn buggies. But what I never was able to picture was the country they decided to leave. And why.

Having roots in western and central Germany, my family of several generations back likely never made it to the Bavarian towns which were on our itinerary. But with each small town we passed in the southern German countryside, its buildings all like the gingerbread houses I'd developed in my mind from German fairy tales, I couldn't help but imagine it one the ones that the German Partenheimers, Bretzes and Heidrichs knew centuries ago. For me, the attraction of Germany was not what makes it a major player in the world today: its powerful economic centers, its modern and culturally avant garde cities, its strong and dominant place in the European system. It was the countryside of Bavaria. The hard work ethic evident by the farmers in the fields we passed which has no doubt contributed to its success to this day. I got to soak this in as we drove from town to town north into Germany from Innsbruck. As we neared Munich, this slow cruise through the countryside came to an end. Believe it or not, although our VW Polo topped out at 110 MPH, flying down the Autobahn did not afford one much opportunity to slowly take in the sights; most of my time now was spent with my eyes fixed on the rear view mirror, making sure a BMW was not approaching at my 6 and colliding with me like I was stopped even though I was cruising along above 100.

But the beauty of Germany. Its mountains. The farms. The green everywhere (which is quite the sight when coming from Denver or Vegas) - it all made me feel proud that I knew this is where my family once called home. It made me marvel at what a dreamland America must have seemed for them to board ships and leave the place in search for a new life somewhere else. One thing that struck me though was that these rolling green hills were not altogether unlike those of southern Indiana. It comforted me to know that they must have in some small way felt at home in Indiana, just as the drive through Bavaria now felt a little like home to me.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

#15. Austria. Zell am See.

As a young guy growing up, I was completely taken away by the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. It's incredibly filmed and written, and based on the true story of one of the most courageous groups of men this world may ever know. I can remember watching it week after week as it aired, wondering where the men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne in World War II would end up: Normandy, Belgium, Bastogne, Berchtesgaden. Eastward they moved as they fought back the German army by hard fought attrition. After 11 long months, spent in the frozen woods of Bastogne, or storming Nazi occupied towns like Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Eindhoven, and Foy, these men finally saw their tour of duty come to a close in the southeast corner of Bavaria in the German alps. The final episode of the series was called Zell am See... After those 11 hard fought months, they found that the end of their long road was in this small Austrian town on a mountain lake in northern Austria. Swimming in a clear blue water, living life as normal people, all under the shadow of the Austrian alps in a land where there was finally peace was the way these men were to end their European tour of duty. I remember thinking.... what an incredible end to this epic story. To fight within an inch of your life for an entire year and then wind up here. This vision of Austria became ingrained in my mind: Rest. Peace. Overwhelming mountains and rolling green countrysides.

When we arrived in Austria, I can't say that this was at all my first impression. Unlike Easy Company who arrived by truck in the foothills over the Bavarian alps, we popped up in the middle of downtown Vienna at the Wien Rennweg metro station. With the wind in our face and a map ripped out of the guidebook, we made our way around the city in search of a place to stay.

"Wir haben eine Reservierung unter dem Namen Grimes" I said to the front desk lady, intent to show off all I could remember from my two week crash course in German.

"Welcome to Vienna, Herr Grimes," she said with a smile, "Not to worry, we all speak English here."

And so ended my attempts at German for the trip. Vienna was just as picturesque and romantic as one may expect: horse drawn carriages, palatial Habsburg estates, crowds gathered to watch opera on the street. Mile after mile we explored the city until our (ok... my) feet would allow no more. The next morning we grabbed our Volkswagen Polo and headed up the Danube River valley.

Each town we passed had its own story to tell. First Dürnstein, the barely noticeable riverside medieval village whose hilltop castle imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, the kidnapped King of England in 1192. Then there was Melk, a small an otherwise unimpressive little town, but home to the largest Benedictine Abbey in the entire world. Town after town we passed, stopping at some, others no. I barely noticed a sign as it flew by along the road as we headed further up river: the concentration camp of Mauthausen; the chapters all of the World War II history books I'd read started to become tangible as I saw where these stories unfolded. Linz: the birthplace of the man himself whose perverted mind first dreamt up the Final Solution in Lansberg Prison. Then Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, idyllic in every way except for the inability to find a parking spot anywhere near your intended destination. I mean it was sixteen, going on seventeen minutes until we even had a clue, and when we did find a place where the car fit it was really far, a long long way to park.

And so further west we went up and into the Bavarian alps. Our chosen route was well out of the way and added more than a few hours to the journey towards our final destination of Munich, but there was a reason. As we finally exited the highway and saw the signs, I imagined us not in our tiny Polo, but in the back of deuce-and-a-half with the men of Easy Company. As Zell am See unfolded in front of us I imagined not the ritzy resort town which wealthy Austrians spend their summers in fancy modern condos, but a sleepy old town, newly enjoying the prospect of peace over Europe, probably apprehensive to welcome American soldiers who'd freshly declared victory over the soldiers who were their husbands, their sons, their fathers.

I could picture Dick Winters diving into the lake, Shifty Powers bagging a deer up in the surrounding woods, Doc Roe staring up at mountainside trying to forget what he'd seen in Bastonge. Our time in Zell am See was very brief, just a stop along the way to our next destination, but to me it was in a way the end of a long journey; this journey I'd pictured in my head for years. Even though they'd been gone for 70 years, I finally got to share that moment with Easy Company. I pulled back the flap and jumped into the back of the deuce-and-a-half, its diesel engine rumbling to a start as it began to make its way out of town. Before long it again became that little white Volkswagen Polo, and just like that... we were back to reality.