VIOLET

Here is a story that I wrote for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2019. I came in 3rd in my heat, so I’m moving on to the 2nd round.  The assignment for the first round was to write a drama that involved a pet sitter and a fiance. The word limit was 2500 words.

Violet

The two dogs were barking and jumping at the door when Fiona, the owner (and lone employee) of Fiona’s Critter Sitting Service let herself into the dark house. She switched on the hall light and made her way straight back to the kitchen, where the two pups anxiously awaited their liberation. She quickly unlocked the door to the backyard and the dogs bounded off the creaky porch.

Fiona filled the food and water bowls before sitting at the oak table to read the lengthy note from Mr. Hart. His notes, written in loopy cursive letters on a yellow legal pad, got longer and longer with each visit. Fiona didn’t mind, however–the notes were filled with not only details about his travels, but also with little glimpses into his love story with Violet. He was completely smitten by this woman. He explained to Fiona that their love story was a most improbable love–not forbidden- just improbable, since he was considerably older than Violet, and society didn’t always look favorably on such love. Their story was, nevertheless, inspiring to Fiona, who was beginning to wonder if she would ever meet her own soul mate.

Fiona had been to the house many times, as Mr. Hart was gone for varying durations throughout the year. She felt like she knew Mr. Hart quite well now between his pre-travel phone calls and his handwritten notes. He was an expressive, passionate man who loved to travel and was deeply in love with Violet. Last month, he had called Fiona to explain a new treatment she would need to give one of his pups. At one point in the conversation he asked Fiona to hold for a moment. She imagined that he muffled the phone with his hand, because she barely heard him say, “I’ll be there in just a minute, my darling.”  

When he returned to the phone, he spoke in a more hushed tone. “Fiona. You cannot know the joy that is in me as I prepare for our trip to St. Lucia. I have arranged so many surprises for my Violet. We will be dining privately on the sand one night–enjoying the most sumptuous seafood and island drinks together. Oh, and another day we will behold the beauty of the island by helicopter. We will see the island’s lush rainforests and coral reefs, and even the Soufriere Volcano! She will never forget this trip! How wonderful life is, Fiona!”

Fiona often wondered if Violet appreciated Mr. Hart. She wondered how old Violet was. He said she was younger than him, but by how much? Ten years? Twenty? She never met Violet in the times she’d met with Mr. Hart, but she imagined that she was beautiful and probably intelligent, too. After all, Mr. Hart was a very smart man. Fiona knew this not just from the detailed notes he scribed, but she had often noted the hundreds of books he kept on the antique shelves in his sitting room. She had read through numerous spines and seen some of the most impressive penames: Shakespeare, Keats, Updike, Austin, Dickens, and Hemingway, just to name a few.

During her last visit, she had spent time looking at the photos on the mantle– there was one of Mr. Hart in front of the Westminster Abbey, one of him covering his white hair with a straw hat on a dark-sand beach, and one of him holding up a lobster at an outdoor restaurant next to a dock. When he called her to set up this visit she asked him why Violet wasn’t in any of the photographs. He replied, “Why, she takes the photos, my dear!”

When Mr. Hart interviewed Fiona, over a year ago, she recalled him being slightly agitated and nervous about having someone coming in and out of his house. She had assured him that she was a professional, and that she was bonded and insured. They talked about her experience, her hobbies, her family, and her schooling. Mr. Hart seemed pleased with their hour-long interview and he hired her. She found herself completely taken with Mr. Hart and his caring soul. He was the most romantic man she’d ever met, and she began to eagerly anticipate the adventures that Mr. Hart described.

Fiona kicked off her sandals and began to read the yellow note on the table.

Fiona,

Thank you for caring for my beloved pups. Violet and I will return late Sunday evening. Please be sure that you come early Sunday evening in case we get in too late. Remember to give the girls their chondroitin each night; their joints seem to be less achy when they take it. I left pig ears for you to give them in the morning. They love those. As always, also make sure they have plenty of water.

As I told you, Violet and I are staying in Paris this week with my sister. She lives just a few blocks from the Tuileries Gardens, in that magical city where I met my beloved Violet. I plan to take Violet to all the places that we went to when we first met.

I think that I’ve told you that it was love at first sight with us. I saw her sitting in a little cafe up in Montmartre. She was sipping wine and eating bread, watching the local artists paint the Paris skyline. I sat down two tables over and just watched her- completely awed by her beauty. Twice she caught me looking at her and I looked away. The third time, it became a game to see who would look away first. Finally, I got up and walked to her.

“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked her.

“No, cherie,” she answered. “Would you care to join me?”

I sat down with her and we talked until the chairs were stacked all around us and the wine had long been dry in our glasses.

“May I have your number, Violet?” I asked her.

She wrote it down on the bottom of an old receipt. I remember caressing the paper as though it was her cheek. She had touched it and now I was touching it. There was a kinetic energy that ran through every cell in my body.

I called her the next day, and found that she was free. We spent the entire day together, and I knew there was no turning back for me. We ended that day on a wooden park bench, eating crêpes “avec le sucre et beurre”.

“Could you consider loving me, Violet?” I asked bravely. “You are young and beautiful and I am an old man.”

Instead of answering me, on that radiant day, she leaned over and kissed me. Her eyes were closed and when our lips touched, I began to shake uncontrollably. She pulled away and smiled. “Consider it? I demand it!” she said, with a smile that positively ruined me.

I hope that you enjoy your week. I will miss my pups, but they know how much I need this special time with Violet.

Fiona left that night feeling wistful. She yearned for the kind of connection that Mr. Hart and Violet seemed to have–the stuff of fairy tales and fireworks and passion. Their story had reignited Fiona’s belief that such a love did exist. It was rare, but it was still possible.

Two weeks later, on a Monday evening, Fiona pulled in to Mr. Hart’s driveway for her scheduled pet sit. Oddly, there was a car in the driveway that she had never seen before. She went to the front door and unlocked it with the key Mr. Hart had given her. The light in the hall was on, and she heard a voice yell from the kitchen, “Hello? Who is it?”

“It’s Fiona,” She responded, as she walked toward the voice, “from Fiona’s Critter Sitting Service. I’m here to take care of the pups!”

An elderly woman sat at the oak table, going through a box of old papers. Her hair was white, and she had a striking resemblance to Mr. Hart. “Well, you won’t need to come here anymore,” she said, looking up from her list. “My brother’s dead. Thank you for your services, my brother trusted you.”

Fiona felt her cheeks burn and chills spread down her arms all the way to her fingertips. “Oh, no!” she gasped. “And you’ve come all the way from Paris! How terrible! What happened?”

“Paris?” the woman asked incredulously. “What would give you that idea? I’ve lived here in this town for over seventy years! My brother died of a reaction to a new psychotic medication he was given last week. His heart just couldn’t take it. Nothing has worked for him all these years, and the doctors thought this might. Such a shame that no one could help him.”

“B..but… I don’t understand!” Fiona said, bewildered. “What about Violet? Does she know?”

“Violet?” asked the woman. “Who is Violet?”

Fiona looked at the woman as she fought the realization that was slowly permeating her brain. “Oh, no. This is so tragic,” Fiona said in a whisper. “Violet was the love of his life. He told me all about their love story. It was…truly… breathtaking.”

“There was no Violet, my dear,” the woman said more matter-of-factly. “My brother suffered from a diseased mind. He did have an active imagination at times.”

The woman realized that Fiona was deeply hurt by this news. She reached into the box and pulled a yellowed newspaper out and held it up for Fiona to see. “Here’s an editorial the local paper published when they first heard my brother was let out. The doctors found him responding well enough to the drugs to leave the ward. He was able to live on his own for several weeks at a time, as long as he took his medication. But oh, my brother hated the side effects of the medication. He spent his life making frequent plans to stop taking it. He knew, after years of treatment, that he would lose all sense of reality after a day or two,  so he would plan to leave his pups taken care of before he ventured out. We’d always find him down by the old bridge and bring him back to the ward to get himself readjusted and back on track.”

“But the pictures on the mantle?” Fiona asked softly.

“My brother lived alone with nothing but his books, and, in recent years, his computer. He became a master with photoshop. They do look impressively real,” she answered with a wishful smile.

“Oh, I see,” said Fiona, heartbroken. She held the article in her hands and read the headline. “No One Deserves a Psychopath Living Next Door”. She couldn’t bring herself to read the article. It was all too much for her to take in. She thanked the woman for letting her know and told her, once again, how sorry she was.

Fiona sat in her car, staring at Mr. Hart’s house for the last time. Tears rolled down her cheeks. His sister claimed he died of a reaction to a new drug. She couldn’t help but wonder, however, if it wasn’t a reaction to a moment of clarity- realizing that Violet would never be his fiancee.

“I hope you find her now,” Fiona whispered as she pulled out of the driveway.

-HC

p.s. In round 2, which is due tonight by midnight, I have to write a comedy involving a security guard and a test of strength. Not sure how this will go, but I’m busy at work now!

Fear and loathing on the “allergic to everything” trail…

I’ve finished off almost two weeks. In two weeks, I’ve tried to navigate a diet course that has thrown my life an abrupt curve ball. I believe I am moving into a new stage in this “meat, wheat, egg, and milk free” diet: acceptance.

The good news is that I’ve found there ARE plenty of good (albeit expensive and harder to find) alternatives for me to make at home. I’ve found dairy-free cheese that melts and some that doesn’t. I’ve found dairy free sour cream that is completely acceptable.  I’ve found gluten and egg-free pasta, crackers, and even (dry) bagels with dairy free cream cheese. As long as I plan ahead and cook at home, my food life is completely sustainable, and some of the alternatives, I am shocked to admit, are remarkably good!

cheeses.PNG

The bad news, the part that makes me tear up nearly daily no matter how strong I appear, is that I just can’t go to my favorite places and order my favorite things anymore. Einstein Bagels is out… they do not have gluten free bagels, and their “smear” is dripping with dairy. My favorite pizza place does not have any sort of option either for this dietary predicament.  I have to just forget about these places I’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years. When I think about not eating real cheese and wheat and eggs it feels like I’ve lost a best friend…

But today, I woke up with a sharper sense of acceptance. I woke up with conviction in my belly. Conviction screamed at my psyche insisting, “Enough! This is minor compared to what many people are dealing with…” I am truly a lover of breads and cheeses, but I need to find comfort in new foods. That’s all.

As I flipped through social media, I read a post from a beloved student I taught years ago. Her son is a tiny toddler who is fighting a brain tumor right now. The pain, worry, terror that she and her husband are experiencing right now are unimaginable. I saw another friend who has been crushed by the loss of a loved one. There are families who have lost everything to natural disasters.  And I have the audacity to tear up over the loss of a few food groups? I’m going to focus on perspective this week. Try to be positive and count my blessings. No. More. Tears.

I thought I’d share some of my new findings this week for anyone looking for ideas who share these dietary restrictions.

Eating out. I am an absolute lover of Mexican food. I ate out at Chili’s this week. (I know- that’s Tex-Mex). At Chili’s, where I spent years as a server and bartender, I nibbled on corn tortilla chips and salsa. I ordered fajitas without the cheese and sour cream. I was able to eat the guacamole, pico, peppers, onions, mushrooms, black beans and a little shrimp with the CORN tortilla option that they offer! This was tasty and made me feel almost normal! Yeah for Chili’s!

Breakfasts. This week I left behind the luxury of the Vans waffles for some cereal and almond milk- even quicker in the ridiculously early mornings of a High School English teacher. I bought the unsweetened almond milk from SPROUTS, where I found an excellent variety of options for peeps on this diet plan. (I got unsweetened because I want to get the milk that most tastes like milk- the less it tastes like coconut or almonds the better to me!) I selected Van’s Honey Crunch cereal, which is gluten, egg, and dairy free. This cereal, with some added blueberries and almond milk, was really quite good once I got over the pasty-like consistency it turns into if you let it soak in the milk for too long. Overall, though, it was pretty okay. It is low in sugar with no high fructose corn syrup, to boot!

On Friday, I treated thawed out one of my new finds: a gluten, egg, and dairy free bagel with dairy free cream cheese. The cream cheese gets a thumbs up from me. A bit of a pasty consistency, but the feeling that I’m eating cream cheese is at least imaginable. The bagel… well, what can I say. I give it a 4. A bit dry. Oh, Einstein Bagels, how you spoiled me all these years…

cereal

bagels

Lunches: My school cafeteria does a pretty good job of having healthy options at lunch. Unfortunately, however, they can’t possibly find much to meet my needs, so I’m back to bringing my lunch box. (If only I had kept the one with Shaun Cassidy on the front). This week, I made what I call “happy salads”. I get bored with salads, which I eat once or twice daily and have for YEARS. The salads that make me happiest have the most colors. So- this week, I made dark green and purple lettuce salads with orange and red peppers, blueberries, raspberries, and cucumbers. I used vegan raspberry vinaigrette dressing.  My “sandwich” was half a gluten-free tortilla wrapped with about two tablespoons of tuna. (I also had celery and carrots depending on the day.)  These were pretty good, but be aware the gluten free tortillas have to be eaten with a fork. They don’t hold together well enough to pick up and eat like a proper roll-up.

lunches

Dinners: I found some tasty options this week. One day I made vegan, wheat-free pasta alfredo and veggie dogs (with a salad). The pasta was actually REALLY good- even passed the taste-test of my 13-year old! The consistency was good and it didn’t have the pastiness I’ve tended to find in these alternative foods.  The veggie dogs were mediocre… a little too mushy for my tastes. I will try them on the grill next time instead of boiling them. But when you cut them up and add enough ketchup, they end up okay…

I also tried my first wheat, dairy, and egg free pizza this week. This was interesting. I ate 2 slices of the 10 inch little pizza with salad. I kept looking in the oven to watch the cheese melt, but it never happened. I gave my first try a 3 because of the icky cheese.  When I heated up another piece later in the week, I sprinkled some vegan mozzarella cheese that I found over the top. It melted! This was a MASSIVE improvement! So, I will buy this again sometime.

mush pizza

Probably my favorite dinner was my Mexican dinner, which I enjoyed for a couple meals.  I used peppers, onions, mushrooms, corn, black beans, and salsa and sizzled them up in a pan. I put the mix on my gluten free tortilla, topped it with guacamole, added vegan cheddar and (later in the week) vegan sour cream, and had a really tasty dinner. I had to chop it up and mix it all together because, once again, these tortillas do NOT hold together well at all…

Ingredients:

mexi dinner

On the plate before and after:

One more family- meal I made this week was a wheat & dairy-free pasta marinara w/ vegan meatballs.  This was delicious and the entire family loved it! Coupled with a salad, it is a definite staple in the Campbell house.

 

I hope that some of my findings might be helpful to others dealing with these dietary restrictions. I continue to read articles about how a 46 year old person can suddenly accumulate such a laundry list of allergies, and why they have to be so destructive to my kidneys. As I find answers, I will share them. I’ve read a LOT of articles about the possibility of all of this stemming from TICKS… stay tuned.

-HC

46 years old and suddenly allergic wheat, eggs, AND milk? Whaaaat???

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last few days about food allergies, after getting word from recent blood tests that I’m now highly allergic to wheat, egg whites, and milk, and moderately allergic to peanuts and soy. As a diabetic pescatarian with a kidney disease known as Focal Segmental Glomerulonephritis, https://nephcure.org/livingwithkidneydisease/understanding-glomerular-disease/understanding-fsgs/ )  this news felt like a sucker punch in the gut. For the sake of my health issues I’ve already thrown meat, sugar, and white-flour, carby-foods to the curb. How can I possibly live with all these additional food restrictions? French blood courses through my veins; bread and cheese are my go-to foods! I love bagels with cream cheese. And sub sandwiches on whole wheat. And eggs. And butter. And yogurt. I mourn for my palate, who now needs to enroll in a new graduate program…

Of course, I began reading. I’ve read scores of helpful blogs that reveal positive experiences and recipes with these dietary restrictions. Often in my life I’ve thought about how glad I was to grow up in a time without today’s modern technology, but what I’ve found online has actually made me thankful to live in this digital age- where we can access such a wealth of information. I’m amazed by the resources I’ve found and how many others in the world live gluten, meat, dairy, egg, soy, and peanut-free.

With tears freshly dried, I went to the “healthy” section of the local grocery store to explore the possibilities of my new food life. There are options aplenty for gluten free foods, but those options significantly decrease when one needs to be sure they are also dairy, soy, and egg free.  I did find, however, several products that I can eat, and I checked out with hope that these new morsels would not taste too horrific.

I’ve tried some of the items that I purchased, and I’ve not been as underwhelmed as I feared. I made myself lunch using a dairy & wheat free tuna tortilla, which was pretty good. The “mission” brand, gluten-free tortillas do not hold together well, but cut into quarters and used as a top and bottom to the tuna, it was not bad at all. With an apple and some celery sticks, my lunch was portable, filling, and tasty.

tuna-on-gluten-free-tort.jpg

For a weekend breakfast option, I’m really impressed with Vans gluten-free and dairy-free waffles with dairy free (Earth Balance) butter spread and blueberries. I used syrup with no added sugar or corn-syrup, and it was quite tasty! It was odd to crunch down on some sesame seeds, but my palate said, “yes, ma’am.”

vans waffle with syrup and blueberries

I made a dinner using the ONE loaf of bread that I found that did NOT have egg whites, wheat, dairy, or soy. It is a brand called “Ener-G”, and the slices are the size of playing cards. I used the dairy free butter and I found some vegan “chao” cheese (this DOES contain tofu, so I’m not sure I can eat much of this one- but the tests showed the soy allergy to be moderate- I’ll learn more in the coming weeks about what that really means).  I made a tiny little grilled cheese sandwich to accompany my beans and blueberries. I was impressed that the butter melted and the texture of the bread was not crumbly- it held together quite nicely. While this new diet requires very specific shopping and planning, at least I can see ways to appease my cranky palate.

grilled cheese

Today, I used the Gluten and dairy-free tortillas to make a pizza. I doubled the flimsy tortillas together to make a more sturdy pizza crust. I spread tomato sauce over it and covered it with the vegan cheese. I baked it in the oven for 15 minutes, then took it out and ate it. While the cheese didn’t melt into that mozzarella melt that strings for miles, it was warm and mixed well with the sauce.

pizza possibilities

I’m on my way to figuring out how to replace my comfort foods. I eat plenty of greens which I’ve not bothered to talk about here; my broccoli crowns, asparagus spears, and salads are not going anywhere. They are just now betrothed to new partners.

I hope that by blogging about these dietary discoveries, others in similar situations might find some new ideas or suggestions. If you are reading this and have ideas or suggestions- please leave comments for others to see! If you are reading this and know anyone who might benefit from any of this- please share it!

For the next few weeks, I plan to keep myself busy so that I don’t sulk and think about all the foods I’m going to miss… I’m saying my silent farewell to my guilty pleasures: macaroni and cheese, Collossus pizza, REAL cheese, and whole wheat anything. I will miss all of you like a lost friend. But, as they say in show business… “the show must go on!”

-Heidi

 

Last day in Berlin 2018

As I sit down to think about my last day in Berlin, I’m already on the plane home. One sentiment continues to resonate for me- some of the first words that our tour guide Daniel uttered when we arrived: “Berlin isn’t a beautiful city, but it’s an interesting city.” After spending three full days touring the city, I have to say I agree.

And while on the subject of our tour guide- Daniel was phenomenal. He was a perfect blend of historical knowledge mixed with wit and high energy. When pronouncing the names of the train stops we would need to remember he would say, in his heavy German twang, “you will get off at the Gesundbrunnen stop. That is G-E-S-U-N-D… and more letters!” A clever way to shorten the long names that the Germans seem to attribute to most things.

After breakfast and a final training workshop, we had all afternoon to explore on our own!

I made plans to go up to the top of the TV Tower with two buddies I’d met on the tour- Tim- a special ed teacher from New Mexico and David-an art teacher from south Chicago. These guys wanted to do all the stuff I wanted to do- which was the tower and a half day of what David called an “urban hike”. Several other groups were going shopping and trying to stay out of the below freezing temps, but I wanted to explore and see more of what Berlin had to offer!

We ordered tickets in advance for the tower tour, and made our way to the subway. The Berlin subway, by the way, is called the U-Bahn when it runs underground or the S-Bahn when it comes up for air.

We got on the train that was supposed to be headed for the famous Alexanderplatz… Tim asked what the “Platz” stood for and David responded “you know- Platz [pronounced PLAYTZ]. Like you eat dinner off your Platz!” (Just a small example of loads of laughs in the day!)

The train we were on, totally going in the direction we needed, had other plans. It actually stopped in between stations and reversed directions! We backtracked to the previous station, where we got off to figure out how else to get to our destination in time to meet our 1:00pm tour time! We were down to seventeen minutes!

Tim found a train that we could take that was leaving in ONE minute, so, once again- in Amazing Race-style- we ran down the stairs to the lower level and met the train just as the doors opened!

We successfully made it to the Alexanderplatz stop and headed straight for the TV Tower… known locally as Fernsehturn. There were strict guidelines about bringing food and water in, so David had to scarf down the sandwich he smuggled out of the hotel breakfast and gulp down one of two water bottles. He hid his second, unopened water bottle behind a bench, hoping to retrieve it when we came out of the tower.

The lines to get in to the tower were long and we couldn’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. We had “fast track” tickets, so we managed to move past the non-moving masses.

We got in the elevator, with more people than a fire code would appreciate, and headed up. We went up so high my ears popped. The tower observation deck is 207 meters up, which calculates to about 680 feet. (The actual structure, including the needle, soars a whopping 368 meters: 1207 feet. Taller than the Eiffel Tower!) In fact, our guide told us that it is the highest building in Europe that is open to the public!

Once at the top, we were able to wander around the circular observation area and look down on the entire city. There were excellent markers in front of each window that described landmarks and where to find them. It was exciting to note the places we had already seen and take note of the places we wanted to hit whilst wandering through the city.

I was excited to see that St Mary’s Church was an easy walk from the tower- I was eager to see the inside.

The white building with the mural all around it is a building called the Haus des Lehrers, which, Daniel explained, means ‘house of teachers.’ The building, he said, was built in the early 1960s by the GDR- the German Democratic Republic, and the architecture resembles all the other buildings built in the same time. Daniel described these buildings as “LEGO block buildings all over the city.” The mural, which is actually a mosaic that encompasses close to a million tiles, is a symbol of the New Berlin- the future of the city.

The tower was a great experience. It allowed me to really get a perspective of the scope and area of the city, and where things were. I recommend doing this after you have been in the city a couple of days, as it’s exciting to spot the places you’ve seen!

After making our way back out of the tower, David walked over to where he hid his water bottle… just as a man with a backpack had scooped it up. He somehow managed to communicate with the local man enough to get the man to reach into his backpack and hand back the water bottle. Point for David!

Our first stop was at St. Mary’s Church. We had walked past this on our first day, but had not gone in. We walked in and completely missed the glassed in exhibit showcasing the “Dance with Death” , a fresco painted in 1485. Inside, I was confused because there was a three panel mosaic that had skeletons dancing with people… but Then I remembered it was a fresco. We toured the church, and admired the pipe organ and the ornate pulpit.

On the way out, we were looking for stairs to see if the famous mural was upstairs, and that’s when we realized that the mural was right there- just inside the front doors! This church, a Catholic turned Protestant Church, is the second oldest church in Berlin.

We left St. Mary’s and began walking in the direction of the Neptunbrunnen, otherwise known as the “Neptune Fountain”, which is in a piazza (not sure what the Germans call this open area?) around the corner from Alexanderplatz.

This turned out to be a rather intense area, as there was a group of Syrian demonstrators who were highly charged. They all waved flags from their country and they had draped additional flags around the necks of some of Neptune’s women. They set up a jail cell, and they brutally threw two men inside the cell- both wearing masks. I could only see one of the masks but it was a Putin mask. Running around the outskirts of the demonstration were three men dressed in white clothes and head bands smeared in blood. I wasn’t sure what their role was. Although tempted to stay and watch a little longer, the German SWAT team arrived, and I knew it was a good time to keep on moving!

Our next stop was at the oldest church in Berlin- Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas’ church. The experience at this church perhaps started a downward trend of how the locals responded to us… the woman at the door glared at us. We went in, and another man glared at us. We saw that if we wanted to enter and take photos it would be 16.00 euros. I wasn’t up for spending that, and neither were my pals. David tried to head out a side door and got yelled at by the eagle-eyed man. We left in a bit of a hurry.

We ventured back out into the absolute biting wind, but were still eager to fill our time until dinner. (Did I mention the temps were in the twenties??)

We found our way across a very busy street and wandered around the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche Ruins. This was once a church, built in 1250, that was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in 1945. There were giant blue pipes built inside that seemed to serve no purpose, so I’m guessing it was some sort of modern art. I felt like it really took away from the beauty of the ruins, if I’m being honest. It was, modern art aside, a good visual of the destruction that truly flattened the city… and what remained.

At this point in the day, we decided to find a pub to warm up and have a rest. We had passed what we thought seemed the quintessential German pub, so we decided to find it, since we had an hour and a half to kill before meeting the group for dinner.

We passed a few other interesting sites on our trek to the pub…

Once we got into the toasty warm pub, we were told to stand, as the waiter pointed to a tiny chair-less table. We ordered pints and stood, enjoying the warmth. After a few minutes, a tiny little booth in the corner opened up, so we carried our drinks to the table to relax for a minute. Well, this was apparently a sin of monstrous proportions, as the woman behind the bar began flapping her arms, rolling her eyes, and glaring at us. Since we had no idea what she was saying, although I certainly could have guessed, we just stayed where we were until we had finished our drinks. I may have also quietly rung the little bell that was on my table on the way out. While the service was rather alarming, the company and the pub feel made it a great stop!

We met the large group back at Alexanderplatz and headed out on a ten minute walk to dinner. On the way to dinner, we passed through the Kreuzberg neighborhood. This was a Jewish neighborhood before the war. Daniel explained to us that the church in the area was where many Jewish people were captured and taken to the concentration camps for being 1/2 Jewish or a 1/4 Jewish. They were actually worshipping in a Christian Church, but Hitler, with murder and hatred literally seething from his pores, found them and killed them.

We stopped to look at the ground outside the church and saw many “Stolperstein” (translates to stumbling) stones. These are stones that are mini monuments, with brass plates on each one that name the victim and the dates of their lives. Hitler murdered these people, and the modern Germans want visitors to honor them and never forget these innocent human beings.

Dinner was in this historic Jewish neighborhood at a place called the Grand Bar, and it was delicious! My vegetarian option was a delicious breaded goat cheese with veggies marinated in something wonderful. After dinner, we returned to the hotel to pack. Our wake-up call came at 2:30am! Ouch!

What a trip. Thanks to EF Tours for providing this amazing opportunity for the forty teachers who were on the tour!

-HC

Fear and loathing on the Berlin trail… Day 2

I woke up this morning and headed to breakfast. Wow- was I impressed! They had everything anyone could want on numerous separate stations! Cheeses, meats, fried eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, and even hard boiled eggs… and fruits, yogurts, and homemade breads that rivaled a bakery. I ate with a few teachers, and as I cut my kiwi into quarters, I surveyed the group as to whether or not they eat the skin of the kiwi. Every single one of them said no. And I think they decided that I’m a bit of an odd duck.

I did waste two different cups of God only knows what on the coffee machine which didn’t have English subtitles. I finally clicked the golden button and got some mega-bitter coffee that was sure to wipe any last fatigue from my body!

After breakfast I had a two-hour training class, and then we had ten minutes to bundle up and load the tour bus. And I was ever so thankful today to have so many cold gear articles… because it was 30 degrees with a few hours of snow! (One guy from New Mexico called it blizzard conditions!)

Our first stop on the bus was at the historic East side gallery. No one visiting Berlin should miss this- even if it is below freezing and windy. This gallery is actually a series of murals painted on a remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, murals which were put up to celebrate all that was joyous and peaceful and free about the Wall coming down. The Wall has 101 different paintings- some very abstract, others more pop art style. One of the most famous is the “kissing dictators”, which says at the top “God help me stay alive” and at the bottom “among this deadly love”. This is, according to our tour guide, the longest outdoor painting in the world.

There was a fellow playing his instrument in front of one of the panels… this instrument was like the chitty-chitty bang bang of instruments. It made these funky gurgling, seven-horsepower motor sounds that were not very musical to my ears, yet I was fascinated! I bet I could make one of these?!

We got to see St Mary’s Church, which is one of the few buildings to live through the war. This church was actually built in 1270, according to our tour guide, who also said that the tower was put on it to make the church appear smaller. All the guides we’ve had stress the lack of interest the Germans have in religion. So much so that, according to today’s guide, 80% of Germans are self proclaimed atheists. “We have in Germany a religion tax,” the guide explained. “But if you sign a paper declaring yourself an atheist- you don’t have to pay it.” Hahaha

We we made another stop where I visited what must be the most famous chocolate shop in Berlin. In return for free facilities, I bought some chocolate and wowed over the chocolate creations. This Rausch shop smelled like heaven.

As we made our way to Potsdam, we passed some interesting modern monuments. The one with the curved, spaghetti-like appearance is actually a Kaiser Wilhelm memorial. According to our guide, the locals call it “aluminum worms” or “dancing in spaghetti”!

We got a chance to get out for lunch around the corner from the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which was the first Catholic Church to open its doors to the Potsdam community after the war.

We ate lunch in Potsdam, which our guide explained was “Berlin’s more beautiful sister.” For lunch we made our way down the Main Street in Potsdam and found a local sandwich shop. I had a delicious spinach quiche and they had a free WC (bathroom) which I’ve come to appreciate.

One of the most interesting sites we saw before arriving at the “New Palace” was the famous “Steam Engine” building, which is located along the Havel river. This place was built to look like a mosque, but inside it is home to a mega steam engine. According to our guide, there are 2000 Syrian refugees who come into Berlin each year and go there to pray. What a surprise when they find it is not a house of worship!

Our next stop was at the “New Palace”. This palace was finished in 1769 and was pretty much a 200-room summer place for king Friedrichstraße II. The rooms were lined with silks, silver, and gold, the floors were cut from the finest marble, and the art was jaw-dropping. Before I include photos of the palace, I want to describe the “not-a-palace” that was across the street. With sweeping circular stairs on the front, this was simply built to be something beautiful to look at- and was, according to our guide, “where the kitchen was.” This photo below is just a kitchen. Freddie’s diner!

The palace, across from the kitchen, is sprawling and impressive as well. When we arrived, the snow wasn’t sticking, but by the time we left, the grounds were white!

Inside the palace was historic beauty, fortunately preserved; saved from the destruction of World War II.

The porcelain chandeliers were the first of their kind, and they all had porcelain musicians built in. Much of the art was inspired by mythology and the caretakers of the palace have even kept the graffiti that was drawn on the walls during the war.

After a potty stop that cost me 70 cents, we were on the bus and headed back to east Berlin. Our next stop, and final tour stop, was the “Topography of Terror” exhibit. The outdoor exhibit is lined with a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This place is the exact site where the Third Reich housed the SS and the gestapo. Outside, visitors can see the remnants of the cells that the SS used to hold prisoners- those who were tortured endlessly in preparation for their execution. This is why the loathing had to be in this blog’s title.

Inside the museum, there are hundreds of photos that depict the historical atrocities of Hitler’s bloody, sociopathic reign. Many of the photos are painful to look at, but serve as a true, accurate depiction of the horrors of the time.

After leaving the museum, we found our way to dinner somewhere near checkpoint Charlie’s. I enjoyed a creamy mushroom risotto and a glass of German wine called Weissherbst. My dinner mates both had schnitzel!

The ride back, without our guide, was comical and I almost felt like what the contestants on the amazing race must experience! We didn’t understand the language, and had yet to fully comprehend the Berlin subway system. With only one wrong train, we corrected ourselves, had some laughs, changed the proper number of train lines, and got back to the hotel! The Estrel hotel, I might add, is really quite something at night!

Excited to see what awaits tomorrow- my final day in Berlin!

Highlights of Berlin: Day One

I arrived in Berlin today and we literally dropped our bags at the hotel, The Estrel Berlin, and hit the ground running. We took the short subway ride to the city center- a place that was 70% bombed out and flattened in WWII. This is a city of rebuilding… there is literally construction everywhere!

Our first landmark was the Old Church known as the “Marienkirche” at Alexanderplatz. This place is not only beautiful, it is also the second oldest church in Berlin. It houses a very famous fresco done by Totentanz called “The Dance of Death” which, according to my tour guide “reminds all of us that we are all going down!” There is a skeleton who dances with everyone from the lowly teacher to the emperor! Hopefully I will get in to see this when I have some free time!?

Our next stop was at the Rosenstrasse sculptures in East Berlin. These dramatic sculptures were carved by a woman named Igeborg Hunziger, who wanted to honor the brave Jewish WOMEN who put their lives on the line to defy the Natzis and wait for their husbands outside the detention center. 1000 women stood in waiting. The craziest part? The Nazis actually DID give them their husbands back!?

Along the way we saw bear sculptures that were really cute and lively! (Not to mention that the city flag has a bear on it!) This bear is known locally as “Buddy Bear” and he was originally, according to tour guide Daniel, “created by a bunch of Berlin marketing people in the 1990s”. The idea stuck and the Bears were sold to places around town to raise money for the city. Originally solid colors, people who bought them began to individualize them… there’s even a camo-clad buddy bear hiding in the bushes in front of the Dept of Defense building! I can’t wait to spot more of these guys tomorrow!

As luck would have it, there was a street market going on and we were granted free time to wander. Interesting things I saw- particularly the record painter!

I also enjoyed a personal favorite- a crepe with Nutella!

Our next stop was at the largest Protestant Church in Berlin. It was so huge, in fact, that most believe it was built to serve as a Protestant version of the Vatican!

This church is called Vecaka Belines Baznick.

The Berlin Wall was next. I got to see portions that are on display… and I learned that they have built bricks into the street, with placards, to mark the entire length of this wall…

Check point Charlie was next, which was a famous crossing point between east and west Germany.

We oohed and aaahed over the Brandenburger Gate… and saw a comical old dude in a white sweat suit jogging with an iPod blasting tunes from his fanny pack. Can’t believe I didn’t get his photo!

This is a photo of perhaps the most famous hotel in Berlin. The Hotel Adlon. One of its claims to fame is that it is the hotel where Michael Jackson was staying when he dangled his kid off the balcony!

Before I close with what I consider to be the most moving part of the day, I had fun capturing some of the interesting things I saw!

The Holocaust memorial was really the most moving part of the day. The monuments that make up the 2711 stones are completely blank. Daniel, our guide, told us that the artist deemed this place a “place without meaning”. It is a place that you don’t even begin to take in until you walk among the stones. Only there do you feel the weight of the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust. This was really powerful…

We had a nice dinner, even got to try German wine and beer, then headed back to the hotel!

I can’t wait to see why tomorrow brings!

Teachers need a rebirth between school years

Last week, a friend said, “with the majority of women now in the work force, schools will probably move to a year round model, don’t you think?”

Year-round school. When I really let that sink in, it makes me queasy… the same queasy I get on one of  those spinning rides at a small-town pop-up carnival. It starts off as a little gurgle, then progresses into more of a dizzy, green, sweating, ear-ringing cry. Teachers do not get in to the profession because of summer, yet, once we are in, these precious eight weeks become our necessary rebirth each year.

I use the term rebirth with purpose. No matter how bad a school year is, the summer has a way of washing away the memories of the difficult days, weeks, and months spent with those out of control students, those hundreds of punctuation-less essays, and that annoying, self-promoting co-worker. A mother, for instance, can suffer for hours and hours in excruciating childbirth pain, but the smile of her offspring washes away most memory of the suffering. (If it didn’t, women would never have multiple children!) Summer does this for teachers. It allows us to forget the bad and focus on the hope of the future. We forget the perpetual eleven hour days, mandatory state testing, and stacks of essays. We sleep. We remember moments of laughter and inspiration. We are reborn and ready for the new year.

Teachers need summer. Yes, I said NEED. I say this not because I don’t enjoy my job- quite the contrary!  My students and co-workers are truly remarkable. I anticipate these breaks because teaching is, honestly, an exhausting profession. The only people who truly understand this need for the eight week respite are teachers themselves. Often times, a teacher is shunned when they refer to a “needed break”. Naysayers roll their eyes and utter “must be nice” comments about “getting the whole summer off.”  Make no mistake, we often do not “get the whole summer off”. We are asked to return to school for staff development, new teacher orientations, coaching responsibilities, summer school, and meetings to plan for the coming year, a year in which we inevitably teach something new. Most teachers bring home a bin of books and materials to read in preparing for the next year. These aren’t your average beach reads- these are books about content and curriculum.

If summer break was to become a mere memory, the teacher retention crisis would be elevated to the catastrophe level. I already see young teachers leaving the profession in droves because they don’t get enough time with their families. The workload doesn’t just end when the bell rings. In fact, I work longer hours in the current educational arena than I did 22 years ago, mostly because of the 3 D’s: documentation, differentiation, and disruptions. The 3 D’s require time, energy, and a constant ability to recreate the proverbial wheel, and I’m not sure any other professions require this kind of after-hours time. In essence, we get paid in the summer for all the extra hours we work during the school year. (Our summer pay is not some sort of additional bonus, by the way. Our contractual, yearly salary is simply divided by twelve months.)

As I look to the months of “unnecessary” laundry that never made it to the top of the priority basket, I realize that I do have some time now to complete these tasks. This is time I am owed, since I donated that time earlier in my year. I plan to spend a big chunk of my summer hours creating a new class, reading some potential literature that might encourage my students to enjoy something other than twitter, and looking at my pacing charts and calendars for the fall. Of course, I’ll also clean out the garage, a few closets, and the laundry room. I refuse, however, to feel guilty when I just sit and stare peacefully at the rising tide. Summer is the time to collect for hours already worked.

The idea of year-round school needs to go away. I understand that teachers would still get several weeks of vacation sprinkled throughout the year, but a couple weeks is not enough time for teachers to wash the previous year out of their hair. We need the time to plan, prepare, and forget.

Maybe another day I’ll write a part two to this titled: “Students need summer, too”.