Good King Wenceslas Looks Out
No, we have not forgotten the seasons and jumped ahead to Christmas; we are in the home of the original King Wenceslas, namesake of the Christmas Carol recorded famously by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many others. Wenceslas the First, also known as Vaclav I, was a Bohemian King in the years leading up to the new millennium--the 1000s, that is. Wenceslas is considered the patron saint of the Czech Republic, where we are preparing for our farewell dinner before parting ways tomorrow, Wednesday.
In addition to quality time spent with the subject of our favorite Chirstmas song, we have seen the largest ancient castle in Europe, one of the oldest astronomical clocks in the world, a 600-year-old bridge, and some modern wonders as well. We have dined on ghoulash, strudel and other local delicacies, all while exploring the politics, history and culture of this post-Soviet country which is experiencing huge growth in tourism after the fall of the Iron Curtain nearly thirty years ago. And for good reason: the city is beautiful, historic, and much more affordable than some of the more popular European cities.
On our way out of Germany, we stopped for an afternoon in Dresden, which is perhaps best-known to Americans as the site of a devastating firebombing in the final months of World War II, which saw the city flattened by nearly 4000 tons of American and British bombs. Despite this, the city has a gorgeous historic center, rebuilt methodically to reflect its historic profile as "Florence of the Elbe". The Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) and the Zwinger Palace were highlights, as was a delicious dinner in a beautiful baroque building in the old city center.
As we prepare to return home after an amazing three weeks in Europe, I can speak for everyone when I say that we have had experiences and seen things that we will never forget. From your directors: thank you, parents, for trusting us with your children. Thank you, participants, for trusting us with your time, energy and patience. To all those reading: we sat on benches in Prague's Wenceslas Square before taking the picture below. Each had inspirational quotes, including this one from author Paolo Coelho: "Travel is never a matter of money but of courage." Although money helps, it is true that travel is a brave and courageous act, no matter how you do it. We hope this is but the beginning of a life enriched by beautiful travel experiences.
In Germany, you are never far from the dark history of the past; for us, this was impossible to escape as we visited memorials and other sites that serve to remind visitors and residents alike of the history of this country. While our political debates may seem abstract at times, Berlin offers ample reminders that ideologies have consequences. In Berlin, this truth was starkly reinforced by experiences that exemplify the human cost of an ideology that defined groups of people as subhuman and as “other.” Our days in Berlin were heavy days that challenged students to lean into upsetting truths and to consider the progression of Nazism from rhetoric to genocide.
On Wednesday, our first full day in Berlin, students gained an overview of German history through a visit to the German History Museum. Students explored exhibits that spanned from the Middle Ages to the present day. A special exhibit asked students to consider the elements of a free and open democracy. The exhibit posed questions such as, “What is an individual’s role in a democracy?” and, “How do we acknowledge and address malfunctions of democracy?”
A feature on the Weimar period, between the two world wars, offered powerful insights into the possibilities and, ultimately, the downfall of democratic practice. We ought never forget that the Nazi Party won a plurality in German elections in 1932, after which Hitler expanded his power to become Fuhrer.
After the museum, we walked through the Brandenburg Gate to the Tiergarten, where we visited several memorials to people systematically murdered under the Nazi regime--Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, and Jews. Students were pushed to think about the purpose and effectiveness of the memorials and the perspectives that they conveyed.
Our visit to the Memorials to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, was juxtaposed with a visit to the site of Hitler’s bunker, now paved over as a parking lot. It is remembered only by a small information board, put up by tour companies. The German government offers no tribute to Nazism; instead, sites used by the Gestapo are now dedicated to teaching the public about the terror they instilled. We finished the day at the Topography of Terror Museum, on the site of Gestapo Headquarters.
On Thursday, we visited a memorial on the site of a former concentration camp in a Berlin suburb, Sachsenhausen. The site was one of the first Nazi concentration camps as well as an SS training center from 1936 to 1945, when it was liberated by Soviet and Polish forces. We spent several hours walking through the spaces of the former concentration camp and learning about the atrocities committed there. This was a somber day, but the learning will undoubtedly stay with students well into the future.
One student, Kayla, reflected on her experience visiting WWII memorials and Sachsenhausen:
“Lost in time. Millions of lives were cut short in a matter of moments. Millions of people suffered and were victims of World War Two. Today, we look back in solemn remembrance, blind to most of the horrors of the war. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to history, to the past. Essentially, many people understand World War Two as Hitler = bad--basic thoughts like that. But people whose lives weren’t uprooted by it all don’t fully understand it. We need to preserve the harsh truths of past conflicts. We need to remember World War Two and the Holocaust. I don’t mean with gift store t-shirts or flashy movies, but honest stories and unfiltered truths.
Today, war is often glorified. Battles and soldiers are promoted, when in reality, there is no glory in war. There is no happiness in senseless killing and the loss of life. We need to memorialize the loss, and say to the past, “you are not forgotten”. What is the point of remembering if we are not remembering the reality, the actuality of it all. We cannot choose to memorialize heroes--though men of valor deserve recognition--without remembering those who are lost, the people whose lives were forever ended by the war. We have a duty to remember the Jews, the Armenians, and so many others. While it’s a hard truth to face, we have a responsibility to keep their stories alive. We must study the conflict to make sure it never happens again. We all have a responsibility to look into the past, and make sure the victims of World War Two did not die for nothing. Their lives and their stories deserve to be remembered. We have a responsibility to never, ever forget.
After a wonderful stay in France, we have safely made it across the border (two, in fact!) to Germany. Our train from Paris to Cologne made a stop in Brussels, Belgium, which, according to some of our students, means they can now say they have visited Belgium as well--one more country for the list! Although we had a few travel hiccups along the way, we are all enjoying Germany so far. After a brief stop in Cologne, we are now in Berlin, where we are staying at the historic Park Inn, which is the second-tallest building in the city. Those of us lucky enough to have rooms on the higher floors have amazing views of the city. After checking in, we had a quick walking tour of the neighborhood, focused on Alexanderplatz, named for Tsar Alexander I of Russia at the end of World War II. We are in what was the Soviet sector, later East Berlin under the Federal German Republic. There is a lot to see very close to the hotel, including the Urania World Clock, the Fernsehturm TV tower--Germany's highest structure--as well as Rotes Rathaus, Berlin's town hall.
Despite our busy schedule, we have found time for academic content as well. It is impossible to visit Berlin without confronting the difficult history of World War II and the Nazi regime, so we began by learning about German history in the late modern era. This was a natural transition after visiting Versailles and discussing Napoleon's conquests. Dating back well beyond the Franco-Prussian War, which is where our discussion began, these two neighbors engaged in sustained conflicts which led directly to the Second World War. Students have an exceptional amount of prior knowledge to contribute--they barely need instructors! We sought to explore new angles to topics that most students know quite well; we looked at the W.H. Auden poem Refugee Blues to bring a human element to the refugee crisis that preceded the Holocaust. This was good preparation for our first full day in Berlin, which included a visit to the German History Museum, the Brandenburg Gate (see below), and several memorials to victims of the war. At this time (about 5:30 on Wednesday in Berlin), we are resting up before dinner and a classical music concert titled "Beauty Against Violence," a theme which we have and will continue to explore through our time in Europe. On a similar note, we have an additional student reflection, below, from our recent visit to the Louvre. Thank you to Riley Kuh for this contribution!
-Will & Amanda
Art, History and Art History
Art is one of my favorite things in the world, and the Louvre (along with Versailles!) embodies my favorite style of art: Romanticism. Paintings such as Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix and The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David are some of the most incredible recollections of history, in my opinion, and further my love for history and the art depicting it.
Much of the art in the Louvre is impressive--no, ALL of the art in the Louvre is impressive. But many of the most impressive paintings and sculptures are not nearly as known as, say, the Mona Lisa. The courtyards are filled to the brim with perfectly chiseled sculptures, and the halls are lined with countless paintings. Everybody can find something they like. For myself, it was the passionate paintings of historical moments, or paintings that personified a movement. Paintings of generals, battles, revolutions, and strife are romantically depicted in the halls near the Mona Lisa. These paintings are subject to countless passersby, many of whom just visited the Mona Lisa which, some might say, is a bit underwhelming, give its reputation. These paintings are some of the most incredible pieces of art in the world, yet many simply overlook them. Quite a thought!
Driving into Paris, known as the City of Lights, was a "wow!" moment for all of us--students and instructors alike! We arrived in Paris early afternoon on Friday, driving down the Champs Elysee past the Arc de Triomphe as well as iconic stores and the sites of big moments in history. In Paris, these historic sites are all around you. After checking into the hotel, we enjoyed a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens, just steps from one of five statues of Lady Liberty located around Paris. Much smaller than its New York cousin, the statue was the first of many we would see in the gardens. After walking past the palace--once home to Queen Marie de Medici--we visited France's oldest University, and one of the oldest in Europe, the Sorbonne. Many students left sporting new college gear, and perhaps a few are reconsidering their college plans!
Although the spire and roof of Notre Dame was badly damaged by fire this past April, walking past the huge gothic structure remains truly awe-inspiring. We also visited the Pantheon and Paris's largest English-language bookstore, called Shakespeare & Co. After free time to shop and explore, we walked by The Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, filled with beautiful artwork of its own. We capped off the night with a boat ride along the Seine River, which bisects Paris. The views from the water are unbeatable, especially at sunset!
At the Louvre the next morning, students were able to explore one of the world's great art collections in a majestic complex of buildings that was once the royal palace. After photos by the glass pyramid, we saw the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix), and a nearly perfect Egyptian Sphinx. Along the 8 miles of galleries, there is something for everyone to appreciate. We had a typically Parisian lunch nearby, then we took time to relax, refresh and regroup before the evening's outing to Montmartre. The city's highest natural point, views from the Sacre Couer gave us all chills. Some young people even bought a lock to put on the fence outside, commemorating the trip and sending a message of "together forever" to a special someone back home.
We walked in the footsteps of the French revolution on Bastille Day, starting the morning Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. We were lucky enough to hear a choir warming up for the evening's festivities as we climbed the 1665 stairs to reach the second floor of the tower. As you can see (below), the views were amazing--for those hardy enough to complete the journey! It was a great workout as well, and then we were off to Versailles in true revolutionary spirits. We could feel the proud patriotism of the French as we saw jets in formation fly overhead, trailing exhaust in the French tricolor - red, white and blue. We were wowed by the opulence of Versailles, where the Sun King (Louis XIV) hid out during the French Revolution...until it was too late. Although the palace was ransacked after his execution, it has been artfully restored, and much of the artwork has been returned. It is a gorgeous space with well-manicured gardens which, sadly, we were unable to visit on such a busy day.
We capped the evening off by watching the firework display from the Pont de las Concorde, in view of the amazing display, set off from the Eiffel Tower, and on the other side, the Luxor Obelisk, the Fontaine de Mers and the Bourbon Palace. What a magical place! We are off to Germany this morning (Monday), but you will student reflections from Paris in the coming days, so stay tuned!
Greetings parents and students,
This morning (Friday) we said “au revoir” to the scenic seaside town of Deauville and set out for Paris. En route to our Paris hotel (situated just on the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens) we passed by the Arc de Triomphe and proceeded straight down the Champs de Elysees. With Joe Dassin’s “Champs de Elysee” playing in the background, students began to excitedly point out iconic landmarks and the stores where they plan to shop. For most of our students, this is their first visit to Paris and their enthusiasm is contagious.
One week into the program, students are in good spirits as they continue to deepen friendships and engage with history in a very tangible way. We are excited to continue to explore Paris for the next three days!
On Sunday we will update you on all of our Paris adventures. In the meantime, we have invited another of our students, Celia, to share about her experience in Normandy. Please enjoy her reflection and insights.
-Amanda and Will
Wednesday-Caen War Museum & D-Day Sites
We started the day on Wednesday by leaving the hotel at around 9:00 am to go to the Caen War Museum. As we walked through the museum halls, we examined the heart-wrenching artifacts, stories, and videos recalling World War II. Following our museum visit, we departed to Arromanches, one of the beaches of the D-Day landings (code named “Juno”). In Arromanches, we experienced a 360° cinema, which reviewed the build up to and events of D-Day. The film was twenty, uninterrupted minutes of original footage of the D-Day landings. This was many of our favorite parts because the setup of the movie allowed watchers to feel involved in the battle. This was really cool but also extremely saddening as the video footage made the image of D-Day more real for all of us.
After our visit to Arromanches, we journeyed to the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy. This was my favorite site of the day. Seeing the number of soldier deaths on paper is one thing but seeing the thousands of crosses spread out across the land is shocking. The memorial was beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.
Following our visit to the American Cemetery in Normandy, we took a short van ride to visit Omaha Beach. Although Omaha Beach is now a public beach, we were able to find a place to sit overlooking the beach and reflect. We sat in silence for around fifteen minutes, processing our thoughts. All of us had different ways of taking in the beach and its historic meaning but we all got to do it in silence, which I appreciated.
Following our Omaha Beach visit, we stopped at the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument. This was also extremely cool, as you could see where the troops hid their artillery in the land. There were big holes caused by shells and bombs and secret hideouts overlooking the sea. It was extremely cool to see these well-preserved sites knowing that years ago people were there fighting for their lives.
Thursday-The Tapestry of Bayeux & Mont San Michel
Thursday was a long day, but definitely cool. We began the day by visiting the Bayeux Tapestry. I learned about the tapestry in school but didn’t realize how long it was. It is around 70 meters long! The tapestry wrapped around a big room on display. As soon as I entered the room, the colorful embroidery on the tapestry consumed my attention. We had audio tapes vocalizing the story of William the Conqueror which was illustrated on the tapestry. We then got to walk through the rest of the museum, and see the tools used for the embroidery. I think it's pretty interesting to know that none of us have a clue how many people or really who embroidered that tapestry.After that, we departed for Mont St. Michel. Pulling up to it was amazing because that was not what I expected. It is so beautiful! The water is so blue and the Abbey is huge. We did a photo scavenger hunt for a couple of hours while we wandered through the tourist-filled beauty. Needless to say, it was a lot of walking and stairs! We then found a small place for dinner with all types of crepes. All of us are so tired and ready for bed but so excited for Paris tomorrow!
"Juno" Beach at Arromanches with WWII landing craft
First views of the Arc de Triomphe!
I See London, I See France...
After a whirlwind couple of days in London, we have safely arrived in France. Our group has been busy soaking in historical sites, debating big questions about the past and present, and getting a taste for life across the pond. At the time of posting (Tuesday evening here), we are in Deauville, France, which is a beautiful beach town on the English Channel. This will be our home base for exploring the rich and powerful history of Normandy, including the D-Day invasion. Our wonderful, kind and curious students have bonded quickly, soaking up a ton of history and culture in a short time. They have even made time to write about their experiences. For this post, we are turning the blog over to Kayla Borchers. We have invited others to contribute in the future, but for now, please enjoy Kayla's reflection on the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime.
-Amanda and Will
Bonjour students and parents,
The second morning in London started off early. I remember waking up and going, “Oh, so that’s what jet lag feels like!” Needless to say, I was pretty tired. After a caffeine stop and breakfast, we all met up and headed out to London to explore. We walked around some cool parts and saw some really old buildings! Next we went to the Tower of London, which was my favorite part of the day. We saw many different things there like the imprisonment tower, tons of relics and armor, and the famous ravens. I loved getting to stand where so much history had happened. I remember standing there, just casually touching the wall and thinking, “people walked down this hallway hundreds of years ago.” Needless to say, it was a major highlight of my trip. I still can’t believe that we get to walk where history actually happened! It makes it feel so real. After that we spent some time at the Churchill War Museum. Everybody loved it and I honestly could have spent so many hours exploring it!
The next morning we woke up and took off for France. Now, I adore French history and France in general, so I was pumped. We had a quick ride across the channel, followed by a hotel stop, then exploration of Rouen. We got to see cathedrals and different gothic styles! In moments, it felt like we timed travelled. After that we enjoyed supper at a pizza and burger place, which was delicious! It was the best pizza I have ever had. This was also the first time I got to try ordering in French. I knew my Duolingo practice would come in handy sometime! After that, we had free time and some of us chose to walk around the area and explore a little more. I played another student, Henry, in a game of checkers. However it was ended short. Our game will be completed at some point in this trip!
Anyway, later that night we walked to the Cathedral to see a late-night light show. They illuminate the face of the famous Rouen Cathedral. We got there, found seats and waited. It ended up having technical difficulties, so it got cancelled. However, the walk back was fun—making it worth the journey.
On the first day of Modern Europe we all landed in London on July 6. I was super excited, especially since I had never been there before...
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The journey begins...
Greetings students and parents,
Our journey began barely 24 hours ago at JFK Terminal 4. Since then, we have had a strong start to our 2019 Modern Europe Trip.
Our flight landed in London around 11:30am and we boarded vans bound for our London accommodations. In London, our "home away from home" is the historic Beit Hall located on the campus of London Imperial College.
After settling into the hotel and quick power naps we headed out to explore the sites and food of the city. For our first meal of the day (lunch/dinner? Time change problems!), we sampled food from the South Kensington area and then took the Tube (London subway) to Westminster. Most of the Westminster sites (and Big Ben) were under construction, but we found some angles perfect for pictures! Our conversation about Westminster bounced from the British system of government, to William the Conqueror (crowned at the Abbey) to royal weddings!
From Westminster we strolled through London, eventually arriving at Buckingham Palace. Several photos later, we passed by the Wellington Arch on our way to traditional British dinner at the Alfred Tennyson Restaurant. Some students sampled fish and chips with mushy peas while others stayed with more familiar options, like steak. With full stomachs and sleepy heads we headed back to Beit Hall.
Our day of adventures closed with a ride in a double decker bus. We returned to our rooms tired from our day of London “firsts” but excited and ready for what tomorrow holds.
Stay posted for more pictures and stories of our visit to the Tower of London and famous London Museums!
Cheers from London,
Amanda and Will