15 September 2016

Bergen-Belsen, Germany 2013

It goes without saying that travel is not always for sheer pleasure or relaxation. Historical sites connect us to glorious feats, to forgotten cultures, or to the worst depravity of humankind. Lessons, all. Are we mindful?

Visiting a Holocaust memorial site is a sobering, painful experience.

It's very quiet, few people are observable as we walk the fifty hectares. None of us feel like speaking much. We read information on the stark obelisks placed on fields that are grassy now, fields where thousands of humans once suffered indescribably. Foundations of a few wretched camp huts still remain.

Bergen-Belsen was initially a Wehrmacht-run POW camp for Russian soldiers; 20,000 of them are buried in an adjacent cemetery. Only later in 1943 was it turned into a concentration camp by the SS. Both German administrations treated the inmates criminally. The bare obelisks and flat concrete markers, at specific sites, reveal the hair-raising story of overcrowding and malicious neglect through lack of adequate shelter, food, water, and sanitation.

At least 52,000 men, women, and children died here, Jews being the vast majority. Mass graves are everywhere. Thousands more died after liberation, weakened from starvation and disease. The numbers are staggering.

Along the entrance way, sound recordings and interviews with survivors can be heard. I did not go to view the photographs and historical footage. Many years ago I had seen film made by the camp liberators. Once is enough to never, ever forget. The arriving British and Canadians were stunned by the walking skeletons and heaps of unburied corpses. The crematorium, working overtime in the last days, had broken down.

Many nationalities are represented on the main memorial wall: French, Belgian, Dutch, Russians, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, and so on. The French dedication to their nationals says they "committed no crime other than love for France and not complying with the invaders' ideas." An individual stone can be seen here and there to memorialize a lone person.

The small Jewish cemetery has stone markers for some who died here, erected by family survivors or their descendants. The brief commemorations are poignantly touching and sad. They include Anne Frank and her sister Margot.
But to my horror, the first stone I saw was defaced. The Hebrew inscription can be seen at the edge of the gouges.
What evil spirit lingers here??

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

02 September 2016

23 August 2016

Road Trip - Burgundy 1987

The third of the road trips in France ... At the end of September one year, we took the rental car from Paris to Dijon to start a leisurely tour along the Route des Grands Crus in Burgundy. Each specific wine-growing area blends (inappropriately dreadful pun) from one to another going south: Cote d'Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Beaujolais. Having enjoyed our share of such labels as Pouilly-Fuissé, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, and others, we wanted to pay due homage in person. There was an indefinable excitement in the air because the harvest was beginning; men and machines were filling the fields and back roads.

This was some time ago, you understand, and many details have fallen by the wayside along with crates of corks and labels. Plus: the relevant scenes in the old family collection of slides (remember slides?) were largely unidentified to very specific places. I don't want to lose the remaining bits of magic so it's taken some sleuthing to rescue the highlights.

It's not a huge distance from Dijon to Macon where our ten-day-or-so journey stopped. We stayed in two or three relais as central points for countryside and winery exploration. We did manage a visit to the twelfth century Abbaye de Fontenoy along the route from Paris. I have no memory whatsoever of Dijon other than we had a dinner booked at a Michelin-starred restaurant ~ gourmandise was definitely part of the planning ~ where a supremely cool woman dined alone with her little dog resting under her chair. Soon we were meandering south.

Beaune was a perfect place to stay for a few days, especially Hôtel Le Cep in the middle of town. We could explore on foot; the glazed tile roof of the mediaeval Hospices de Beaune is an iconic Burgundy landmark. Centuries of history lie here from its 1443 founding as a charity hospital. Sixty hectares of vineyards producing fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay support the continuing tradition.

... And we had tastings on a tour of wine caves.

Macon was as far south as we went before returning to Paris. We stayed some miles from Macon in the impressive thirteenth century Château d'Igé. Igé has a waterside terrace among other peaceful spots.

Here a strange bacteria or bug caught up with me and horrors! my stomach forced me to decline dinner one night in the company of some copacetic fellow guests. In fact, we followed directions next day to consult un médecin who turned out to be the most charming elderly gentleman who never criticized my French. There's nothing like a restful historic ambiance in which to feel restored from flu-like symptoms fortunately they passed quickly away.


Macon itself was humming on a market day. Besides the usual foods, lace products were very much in evidence, particularly the filmy curtains with imaginative designs. And of course the entire area is chock full of restaurant dining pleasures. Grape harvesters were busy everywhere in the district's biggest business.

Time ran out. We did not reach Lyon, having to turn back. A world away from home.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

12 August 2016

Swedish SuperHeroes

Where is ABBA when you need them?!

ABBA made the dancingest music of all time. ABBA music makes me gloriously carefree for the moment (feeling like a number one). When I hear it I cannot stop my body from moving nor my mouth from singing (without a song or a dance what are we?). It only takes a musical phrase (da-da-da DA-da-da .. Waterloo!) to trigger the joy. Sweet and aching. Just thinking the word "ABBA" transports me to halcyon head space.

I went to Sweden. There, ABBA is a revered national treasure. Actually ABBA owns Sweden (it's a rich man's world). Even though they are not together any more ... (breaking up is never easy, I know) infinite sorrow. Nevertheless, they long ago gained immortality as true super-heroes. Gracias por la musica!

You'd think a tourist spot would be loaded with ABBA souvenirs. The music, yes, of course. So where was the tacky, portable gimcrackery I wanted ... like keychains or teatowels or Tshirts to proclaim my allegiance to the planet's most epic music group? Is the absence due to respect for privacy concerns by one of them? Or is reproduction of those famous faces strictly controlled?

Instead, a one-day stroll around the southern city of Malmo revealed that souvenirs of Sweden consist of Viking trolls (disagreeably unattractive), a folk-art-painted horse (charming but of unknown significance), and a familiar-looking moose. The latter caused an excited discussion to erupt on whether Sweden had misappropriated the animal rightfully belonging to Northwestern Ontario and Newfoundland and at least half of Canada.

To my horror having returned ABBA-less to the other side of the world I learn THERE IS AN ABBA MUSEUM (click on link). In Stockholm, where else. So close and yet so far. Crushed barely describes my feeling upon this belated discovery.

They were photographed together this past January for the first time in years. Rumours never die: a reunion would make the entire earth tremble like never before (masters of the scene). Could it happen? Ask Agnetha.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

31 July 2016

Bellingham, Washington 2016

Eager to share my first camel experience in the benighted states of America, we sortied across the border to Bellingham one Saturday morning. On a scale of 1-10 (one is epic fail, ten is nirvana) the result was a resounding 1.
This photo of the border crossing from Vancouver shows you what we had to deal with right off the bat. Typical depressing autumnal BC coastal weather. But this was JUNE!

Nonetheless, our cheerful host Madeline tried to make the best of a rotten outlook as we duly signed waivers. Waiting for us in the drizzle and mud were two wet, discontented-looking bactrian camels Norman and Lexie. With two riding camels available for a party of four, a guide with each, we had to take turns. It was new for me, actually riding a bactrian, and it was different. We mounted via a prepared stand rather than onto the animal in a couched position.

It was not a surprise to find the absence of a saddle but, at this well-advertised site for family outings, Norman had no safety precautions such as a hand grip or even a piece of rope to grasp. It seems the idea was to clutch the tufty hair on the front hump and hope for the best. I did not place perfect confidence in the handlers to avert potential problems with my inexperienced riders. While we all forced sunny faces, the rain and general air of dampness oozed grey (some photos have been lightened/enhanced).

Brenda on Stormin' Norman gamely tries to show gay insouciance to her plucky family.

One of our party looks good here, managing the recalcitrant Lexie who insisted on trying to couche every few minutes, much to my dismay as I could only glance backward, awkwardly, from my own perch. Fortunately Lexie did have a grip handle.

Another fared quite well on Norman considering the promised trail ride of one hour ("rain or shine") was aborted to 5-10 minutes around the barn. To be fair, a full refund was offered.

Lexie relieved of her burden

Lexie's unhappiness was finally acknowledged and she was pulled out of service, depriving a ride for one of us. But really, we all just wanted to go to the barn too!

Madeline shone when she delivered educational information about camels and introduced us to the other residents, smug and safe from the elements in their comfortable stalls.

Some camel artifacts of interest in the office caught our attention as we departed with regret on all sides. Due to circumstances beyond most control: altogether a wet, cold, abbreviated, quite miserable 1.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman