Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Welcome to Lübeck! Tourism before the terror

It's so long since the trip, when Ms T and I and our sons travelled to the UK for the first time, and one of the great memories has nothing to do with the UK – more than ten years.

Don't get me wrong: the UK trip was a treat beyond our means, which is why our dearest friend on earth helped us get there. But … that is a different story.

In a world that hadn't yet suffered the global terrorism panic pandemic, we called by a minor German city, Lübeck, on our way home. The only reason is that Ms T believes a big part of her family history is associated with that city. “We once owned a castle that got turned into a mental hospital in East Germany” is the short version.

So we figured out that a cheap flight would land us in Lübeck to be tourists, a cheapish train would take us to Hamburg, and after that we could pick up our flight back to Australia with no penalty.

So we went to Lübeck, and there are things to see there: churches, for example, restored after WW2 in which the “restoration” work is left in plain white and the “original church” is the bits gathered up after the war, so you can see, dark-on-white, the extent of the devastation.

There's the tourist boat trip around the harbour, which I loved. Or the sausage-seller who could talk better to my son (who has no German) than to my wife (who studied the language in high school)!

But that's not my favourite memory of Lübeck.

My favourite memory happens at border control, in an airport better described as a “shed”, with one bored customs guard processing the incoming passengers.

It seems that in those days, at least, if you were flying cheap and your destination was a Hamburg industry conference, you landed in Lübeck and got a free bus to the conference. So the customs officer had his repertoire down pat:

“Travelling to Hamburg? Out the door, right to the bus, good-day.”

We broke his recitation.

“Travelling to Hamburg? Out...”

“No. We're travelling to Lübeck.”

“Lübeck?” … pause … “Why?

(And I'm not going to try to do a German accent in text.)

Ms T: “Because my family came from here.”

The customs guard switched from bored to a face-splitting grin and arms spread wide. Really: I've rarely seen a transformation like it, especially from someone in uniform behind a desk. He stood up:

Welcome! Welcome to Lübeck! Willkommen! To our lovely city!”

It took us a few minutes – which wasn't welcomed by those behind us – to get through customs, because we were receiving (good) advice about where to get breakfast, and being reminded that “you can walk everywhere in Lübeck!” (which was true), and a reminder of the churches and squares that were worth seeing (he was right).

And the customs guard gave us the key bit of information that made our walking-tourism perfect, that day: “Go to the railway in a taxi, leave the luggage in a locker, and go walking”.

And we have wonderful and (some) distressing memories of that city: its war damage must have been horrific, for example. But we also remember being welcomed at the gate of the city, with joy and enthusiasm, and I wish a dozen years later I could find that guard so we could all thank him properly for helping us find a strange city in a foreign tongue, and enjoy it.

But the world changed, with America holding the whip: I guess the customs guards who have license to smile are few and far between, today. But Lübeck won't have changed that much behind the gate, and it's a wonderful place.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lisa Bonchek Adams: say what you will

To write this, I first had to do something really difficult. I'll explain that in a minute, but it's the reason I'm crying.

The debate de jour has been sparked by some of the most insensitive columns I've ever read: this, from the Guardian (which includes the utterly shameful admission that the columnist included direct-message conversations in the column without permission), and this from the New York Times – a stunning husband-and-wife double-act to piss on a dying woman because she's Tweeting her cancer.

To answer the wife, Emma Keller: there is no ethical question. A person has chosen to write and publish, and has a platform from which to do so, and you have no damn say in it. And, Bill Keller: your snide aside about the cost of visiting dogs is beyond reprehensible.

The cross-platform pissing contest is cowardly beyond anything I can express.

And I recall to mind another individual who chose to die in public, Denis Wright. His blog posts – still preserved here, for how long I know not – were an exemplar of dignity, a life documented in public as Lisa Bonchek Adams' is, and the reason I'm crying now, because I re-read the last week of his journey and the following eulogies and damn even writing these words taps a spring of tears. It was really difficult.

If Lisa Bonchek Adams is wrong to fight her fight in public, then so was Denis. I'm too distant from Ms Adams to speak to her stance, but Denis, I at least knew well enough on Twitter to chat with, and I admired him well enough to (I hope) learn from.

And I'm still on the edge of tears.

My wife and I have chosen to put some of her experiences on this blog, and I won't reiterate them tonight. Our path is different: not cancer, but the toxic and dangerous path of a medically-suppressed immune system.

The reason we speak out is because we know there are things aren't known to the world at large: really, the same reason that Ms Adams is Tweeting. And because we see the “pink ribbon” view of illness – the glamour that raises funds – and like her, we resent it, because there's nothing glamorous about illness, and nothing pink about vomit or shit or pain.

Ms T and I are with you, Lisa Bonchek Adams: keep saying it. We understand. We endorse.