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Winter Soldier Europe, part One: to Freiburg

March 25, 2009

In Portland, I was part of PDX Peace, the group that organized our local Northwest Winter Soldier.  And being unemployed at the time, I made all the publicity, contacted the press, made more phone calls than I should have and kept time during the testimonials.  I’ve only got the smallest of toes in the political scene here in Germany, but it’s still a pretty sad statement that I found out about Winter Soldier Europe from facebook.

Immediately, I set out to get more information.  These events are hosted and organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), so I first went to their website.  From there, I could find out where the next events were being held and follow a link to the website for Winter Soldier Europe.  IVAW also provided a contact, Chris Capps-Schubert, whom I emailed right away.

This is the nice thing about having been involved in politics.  You can just kind of email anyone and explain who you are and then ask if they have a free couch and know anyone who could give you a ride.  I suppose it also helped that my friend from Portland, Chris Arendt, was staying in his house at the time and could vouch for me.  Chris directed me to a woman who is making a documentary about American vets in Germany.  When I called her, I got her husband, who said she was out of the country, but he was going to Winter Soldier from Berlin with a Fahrgemeinschaft, or carpool (there is a popular website here that is basically like craigslist rideshare but more official and the price is pre-set by the driver).  This would cost about €100 less than the train.

The next day, I met up with Haroon, an Afghani who has been in Germany for three years and is also working on the film.  The driver was a German man and there was another rider who was originally from Angola, but has lived in Germany for a while.  I include these details because at a gas station/rest stop (Rasthof) in Frankenwald (Wald means forest), some plain clothes policemen asked for our IDs.  This struck me as odd, first of all, because we were just standing there while the smokers smoked their last cigarettes before getting back on the road.  The activist in me, who has gone through my fair share of police trainings, wanted to say, forcefully, for all those around me to hear, “AM I FREE TO GO?” But apparently they can just check IDs at random here, so I’m pretty glad I didn’t.  So we handed over our collective papers (German Ausweiss, or ID, and American, Afghan, and Angolan passports) and congratulated our luck on remembering to bring identification.  When I recounted this story to Berliners they laughed and said, “only in Bavaria!”  I have no idea what that means, but apparently they are stricter and more into laws (and sneaky?) here.  Or maybe they have an unnecessarily large police budget.  Who knows.

Aside from that incident, which produced little more than a strange look from the cops and the opportunity for Haroon and Janz, our driver, to smoke yet another cigarette, the trip was uneventful.  I was pretty tired, so I split my time between napping, and getting my fill of German countryside views.  I had absolutely no idea I was in for such gorgeous, picturesque landscapes.  The fields stretch across the horizon, dotted with spindly trees, leafless in winter save for a tuft at the top of their skinny frames.  Towering above the trees are occasional herds of wind turbines, turning slowly in the “Europe-is-so-much-Greener,” electricity-making wind (it looked kind of like this little piece of web-comic genius).

When our trusty van rounded a bend (at terrific speeds, I might add – thank you Autobahn!) and came upon a small town, I was pleased to find a refreshing lack of hugely tall gas station and fast food signs, eager to tempt one off of the highway.  If there were opportunities for fueling and eating, we were informed before we reached the town with one lone sign with the logo of the gas station (usually Shell) and a blue square sign beneath it with a fork and a knife.  Perhaps I have driven through Oregon and Washington too often in the last few years, but I was also interested to see that these towns looked immaculate.  No mile approach of rotting cars and sliding buildings probably housing meth labs in the basements (sorry to stereotype, Pacific Northwest).  All of the houses were painted in yellows and reds and grays, with their brick-colored, triangular roofs crowded along what I can only assume were winding, medieval, cobblestoned streets.

You may think I’m getting carried away here, but eight hours after leaving Berlin, and having cut a diagonal line almost all the way across the country into the Schwartzwald (Black Forest) I discovered that cobblestoned streets winding among buildings build in 1406 actually exist, and they live in Freiburg.  The town is a jarring mix of past and present: light rail trams wind between small canals on the sides of the streets; intricate designs in the cobblestones adorn the wide sidewalk outside of each shop entrance – some composed of corporate logos for bigger companies; several huge archways, originally used as city gates preside over major streets.  I found out that Martinstor (Tor means gate), in the center of the city, was barricaded during the revolutionary situation in 1848, so it was a bit unsettling to walk through it under the glow of a McDonald’s, the Tor’s current resident.

I spent the evening walking all around the small town, amazed at the architecture and incredible upkeep of this historical place.  Many of the buildings have the year of construction written on an outside wall, and many of the roads, free of cars, filled with people enjoying their Friday night.  I learned later that most of the city center had been bombed in one night in 1944 and that the residents have painstakingly recreated many of the buildings that wee destroyed (oh, the Germans also bombed the town by accident in 1940, but that just affected the area near the train station.  Its pretty close to the French border, so its understandable…?).  I was almost more impressed when I knew that the rebuilding and preservation of the town was such a point of pride.  It’s a bit of a shame that they chose to fill those rebuilt buildings with neon-lit national and international chain stores, but I suppose they had to pay for all that reconstruction somehow…

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