We walked around the corner of the last building that lined the narrow, shadowy Berlin street and there it stood. The Reichstag. A building that I had mentioned in a thousand high school history essays. A building that was the centre of so much of the complicated but endlessly fascinating 20th Century German history. A place that was built to embody and symbolise the new united German Empire – only to become one of the enduring symbols of the birth of Nazi Germany. The place that was suspiciously burnt by “communists” – an event which allowed Hitler to push through sweeping political reforms that led to him “legally” assuming the dictatorship of German. This act then leading to the mind boggling destruction and waste that was WW2.
I love history (you can probably tell) and knowing just a little about a place turns old buildings into things of fascination to me. So when I reached out to touch the Reichstag I got the rush. The times when I get a sense of place, connection and sheer wonder all rolled into one. The times when I turn to the girls and say “cork popping occurring!” and they know what I mean.
I could wander for days and lose myself in the cities we have seen. The slightly too cute but fairytale spires of Tallinn. The gritty but more real backstreets of Riga. The cleaner, more refined and intricate churches and cafes of Vilnius. Then the last stop before here – Warsaw.
It carries one of the saddest WW2 histories of any of European cities. Flattened methodically by retreating Germans, people suffering unworldly levels of hardship. Brutality, cruelty – and then amongst this one of the most stirring, intense national uprisings in WW2 history. An unshakeably proud national underground army that held the might of the German war machine at bay – briefly. Reading German war diaries commenting that these “Polish seem to fight with a determination and spirit I have never seen before.”
I don’t know why it captivated me so much but walking through the backstreets of the quiet outer neighbourhood near our hostel – we walked past a nondescript two storey house still covered with bullet holes. I would have thought that they would have repaired it all years ago but there it was. Suddenly WW2 is not something from books or grainy old films but something immediate.
But we moved on. The girls voting not to go to the Warsaw Uprising Museum – so Mel and I tag teamed. Though the descriptions of reconstructed resistance tunnels and a 3D movies of the war did finally coax them in.
They fill me with pride those three do. When I stop and take a balcony view of all they do, see and engage with it is staggering. They walk and walk and walk through cities with little complaint. They turn around from a long day and after a morning of slow craft – put in and do another long day.
I was almost moved to tears of pride the other morning with a comment Ellie made. It was 4:45am – about to step on the 9 hour bus from Warsaw to Berlin. We had just woken the girls late so we had an urgency to get to the bus (they were so fast asleep in the next room our knocks didn’t wake them and I had to go and get another key from reception). We dressed them through floods of tears and moans about the light hurting their eyes and how tired they were. They shouldered their packs and trudged down the hall to get to the 4:55am tram, to get to the bus station by 5:10am, to get on the bus at 5:40.
Through deep sobs and tears little Ellie said: “When….I….travel….I’m never doing early starts!”
Not “I’m never travelling”. Not “I hate this”. Not “I want to go home”….but when she does it she will do it differently. God love her. God love all of them.
My little soldiers. Putting up with hours of walking past buildings that mean little to them now, with a dad who is gesticulating excitedly about things he is seeing whilst trying desperately to re-phrase centuries of complex history into short interesting bites that will mean something. They try to listen, they keep walking, they agree to see one more building before we head home. Then they get home and effortlessly assume a game or start craft or potter around in a foreign environment – often surrounded by strangers. Not a toy of their own in sight, no room to retreat to, no space to call their own. Not a complaint.
So we might take it easy in Berlin – where we are right now. Tomorrow we head out on a bike tour, then a few days of slow sight seeing before we hit France. Before we meet up with my parents for 9 days. I think that is a light on the hill for the girls. Not just the boundless love they will receive but the constant attention, the smothering, the different connection, different energy. All a good recharge for them. And Mel and me. This is one tough little unit that this journey is creating. But even tough things need to rest.
So onward to France and the warm, familiarity of family for a while before we launch into the second half. Not a downhill run to home but a different mode. Not moving from here to here as much. Maybe our own wheels so we can camp, get out into the woods more, feel grass between our toes and brew a cup of tea by the side of the road.
Al good things to come. All good things so far.