Monthly Archives: Jun 2014

News from away! (with the Batmanns and their iPad)


We received our iPad just before going to Argentina, and it has been our faithful travel companion ever since. It was on this little screen that we saw our niece for the first time (after hiking six hours down a mountain to find wifi on a semi-weekly basis… Two weeks overdue, seriously, kiddo?!);

that Josh applied for Education from an Argentine campground (and was accepted!);

that a Mennonite frantically tried to learn Cree as his train chugged towards the Northern school at which he was expected to teach it;

and of course, it was on this little screen that this very blog was born.

Now, halfway across the world in a different direction, our little iPad has remained faithful in keeping us connected with our lives back home and in being the bearer of some very exciting news. In May, in a campground outside of Rome, it was on this iPad that I opened the email that would change the direction of my life yet again:

Going into Medicine has been a dream of mine for many years. I am beyond thrilled to not only have the chance to study Medicine, but also to study it in the Bilingual Stream, which will allow me to continue pursuing my passion for the French language and the French community that has become an incredible part of my life!

I received the email around midnight, so all the buses going into town had stopped running. Therefore, we celebrated my future career in Medicine by running across the highway and going to McDonald’s for celebratory McNuggets. I figured I didn’t need to worry about being a good role model for healthy eating practices until I was actually IN med school 😉

After receiving my acceptance in May, I had a few blissful weeks free of any obligations. Finally, however, the magnitude of paperwork caught up to me. In early July, I spent an entire day in my cousin’s office in a tiny hamlet of Switzerland downloading, printing, filling out, scanning, and finally coaxing an ancient fax machine to send all the forms required for my admission. I am frankly astounded that the forms actually sent properly… I don’t know if the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Manitoba have ever received an enrollment package from Ober-Says, Switzerland!


During this trip, Josh’s path has also meandered along some new adventures! In May, Mr. B officially graduated with his B.Ed. Although we were in Köln, Germany at the time of his convocation, his wonderful Ed friends made sure to include him in their celebrations:


In June, we were living in a London flat with Josh’s family during their annual trek to England. One Sunday evening, Josh received an email describing a possible job opportunity for the fall. He excitedly emailed back, but the next day, we went to Glastonbury for the night, so we were without Internet for one day. ONE DAY… which was apparently enough time for the principal of the school to request an interview with Josh! Arriving home that night to a pile of emails, we panicked that he had missed his chance. However, thanks to a convenient time difference and some speedy Skype-calls, Josh got ahold of the school, who reassured him that it wasn’t too late, his interview could be moved to the next day.

Fantastic… Except that the next day, we had tickets to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at London’s West End. So, we brought the iPad and during the show, Josh snuck out of the theatre and ended up doing his interview in the theatre bar over Skype. Only at one point did his potential employer ask Josh if there was a marching band in the background. Unconventional, perhaps – but, that very evening, there was a job offer in his inbox, so unconventional seemed to have worked!!
Josh Skype

A huge thank-you to Laura for faithfully checking our mail back at home, M.O.M. for being willing to sign and drop off all Sara’s crazy forms, Andreas and Simone for letting Sara commandeer their office all day and then (trying to) explain to their workplace why two Canadians had to use the fax machine for an hour, Gwen and Leanne U. for being the most persistent emailers, the Dixons for the 3G, the bartender at Royal Drury Lane Theatre for not batting an eyelash during Josh’s interview, Margaret Park School for being so flexible (note from Josh: I’m so excited to join you this fall!)… And to all of our amazing friends and family, back in Winnipeg or here in Europe, who cheer us on in our crazy, unconventional, ridiculous adventures. We love you guys and love sharing our life with you!

Js Glastonbury

…to the Highest Heights


Continued from the previous post

Our taste of Wales’ natural beauty left us wanting more, so the next morning, we were again awake early and were again blessed by the incredible generosity of Pete, who drove us this time to the foot of Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park. Although we ended up on the “advanced” trail (we were only following Pete’s instructions!), the first half of the climb was relaxing, offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the lakes below.



Sheep mtn

Then, we climbed into clouds. Suddenly, the world disappeared, covering us with mist and obscuring all but the next few feet in front of us. The path that had seemed luxuriously wide and almost painfully gentle suddenly shot straight upwards, with no markers in sight.

Josh path

Mist sheep

We climbed on for a few more meters until we realised that we were completely turned around and making up our own path in the middle of suffocating cloud cover, which did not seem like a good idea. Thankfully, voices came our way: although we couldn’t see them, we managed to talk to two other hikers, who assured us that the path was just below us.

Back on track, we continued on up, finally reaching the summit of Mount Snowdon… or at least what we could vaguely see of it! The winds at the peak were ferocious and the mist was so thick that objects even a few steps ahead of us on the trail disappeared into vague shadows. The temperature had dropped 15°C as we climbed, and every exposed hair on our body was covered with droplets of mist and ice. This is apparently not unusual for Mt. Snowdon: a local who arrived at the summit moments after us took one look at the white void and sighed. “Oh well,” she muttered to herself, “perhaps one of these days I’ll actually see the view.”


However, just a few meters down the mountain, a whole new world reappeared!

Thinking back to the original three elements that had brought us to Wales, all three proved true. The uniqueness of Welsh culture is evident not only in the raw, magnificent beauty that composes the landscape, but also in the earthy language that garnishes every interaction, from the post office to a scenic drive with a local. There is something magical about Wales, where myth and reality live side by side, where mountains disappear into the mist and ancient castles sit cooly beside play structures.




And finally, the Welsh really do scramble off cliffs. And now, so have we.

Snow. Adv.

From the Deepest Depths…



It was a word I had never heard before March, and my first introduction to it occurred when Josh and I were looking at where in the UK outside of England we wanted to travel.

This was the introduction:
“Hey Sara, I found a website that said they do this thing called coasteering in Wales. It looks really cool.”
“Really? What is it?”
“I don’t really know. Something about scrambling off cliffs. But it looks really cool.”

This may seem like a less than thrilling recommendation to most. Bear in mind, however, that we moved to Argentina for eight months based on a website Josh had found after typing “learn about organic farming and stay for free” into Google, which ended up turning out very well (which if you’re already reading this blog, you already know! 🙂 )

So, it kept us intrigued, this cliff-scrambling thing, and when June rolled around and we still hadn’t made a decision between Scotland and Wales, we bought train tickets to Wales based on three factors:
1. They have a crazy language (see more about that here!)
2. Merlin was from there
3. Josh had read on a website that they scramble off cliffs

It was only when we were already on the train that we realised that although we had been talking and dreaming about cliff scrambles for months, we had never shared those dreams with, you know, anyone who could actually make them a reality. Thankfully, Mark from Snowdonia Adventures responded to our frantic last-minute emails, and early one morning, our amazingly gracious Airbnb host Pete drove us to Holyhead to meet up with Mark. Fitted into wetsuits, helmets, and hiking shoes, we proceeded to walk with Mark along the breezy top of cliffs that swept down to the Irish Sea. It quickly became apparent that we were about to spend the day with a Welsh version of my brother-in-law Borden.

After throwing ourselves into the sea, a shocking 14°C after the 26°C of the air, we received some brief technical pointers from Mark, things such as “Always swim feet first when approaching shore” and “If it looks green and slippery, it is.” He then showed us some different swimming techniques, such as how to swim in strong currents, how to rapidly swim backwards, and how to spin yourself in circles really fast.

“Spin! Faster! Faster!!! Really fast! Keep going!” yelled this bizarre Welsh apparition of Borden. “Isn’t that awesome?”


“I’ll add it to your tab,” he added as he floated away. “£5 for the non-pharmaceutical psychedelic experience. £10 for the very flattering pictures I’ll take. Then, we’ll go into Beaumaris and I’ll take you to my cousin’s store to buy some carpets…”

Needless to say, the cliff scrambles were not the only entertainment of the day!

“I’m not usually this surreal,” he mused as he clutched the rock face and snapped a series of ridiculous pictures.


Coasteering, in short, is mountain-climbing, but horizontally along the coast. You scramble along coastal cliffs until you reach a point where scrambling is impossible, at which point you hurl yourself (safely – don’t worry, Moms!) off the cliff and into the frothing sea below.

I could continue to type, but these will do more justice:


Easing into it: our first little jump!
First jump


Moving on up… Many meters above sea level!!



There’s only one way down from here!




With numb feet and hearts still pounding, we made our last scramble up a sheer cliff face, anchored only to a rope tied around Mark’s waist at the top, then walked back to his car. Although the expedition was technically over, he offered to drive us along the coast for some magnificent views, regaling us with tidbits of ancient and local Welsh history. After an hour, we arrived in Beaumaris, a lovely little fishing town. After instructing us on where to find the best mussels, we finally said goodbye to Mark and dashed through the pouring rain to a well-earned lunch.



To be continued…

Ps. You can watch Mark’s video of us coasteering here!

Iaith fyw


Getting to Wales is no easy task. Despite being neatly nestled in England’s bosom, it took us no less than four trains to get there. Mists became heavier, and place names wildly more exotic, as we approached the legendary birthplace of Merlin. Upon boarding the last train we were greeted by this:


Now, many an Englishperson had told us that Welsh was basically a dead language. But as we passed signs bidding us ‘Croeso’ to places such as Lladundon and Gwynydd, it became clear that we were in a very bilingual country…more bilingual, even, than Canada!


This comparison between Welsh and Canadian bilingualism got me thinking. It’s not a fair comparison, because Canada’s two languages are both colonial, whereas Welsh is a native (in the most general meaning of the word) language that survives despite the presence of English. A more appropriate comparison would be between English (or French, in Quebec) and the multitude of First Nations languages that have been present for thousands of years.

What has allowed Welsh to survive while less than 1% of Canadians still claim a First Nations language as their mother tongue? And what can Canada learn from the Welsh success? As Canada tries to recover from centuries of colonization, these are definitely things worth addressing (though this applies to the nation as a whole, I will speak only to my own experience, which is in Manitoba).

The obvious answer to this question is financial support. The UK government pours significant amounts of money every year into keeping Welsh alive. All official signage and documentation are in both Welsh and English, with Welsh usually being more prominent. The majority of schools in Wales are taught in Welsh, and basic Welsh is mandatory throughout all grades even in English-language schools.


Meanwhile in Manitoba, public text does not include First Nations languages until the 58th parallel (which is basically Churchhill and that’s it), and schools must design their own curricula and materials if they want to teach a First Nations language.


The most common objection to the use of First Nations languages in public institutions (including schools) is that there are simply too many of them. In some respects this is valid: it would be impossible to choose a single language to represent the diversity of a land this massive. But considering that 30 Waleses could fit into Manitoba alone, it is not unreasonable to propose that the Wales-sized plot of land around Winnipeg could include Anishinabe in its public texts while the Wales-sized plot of land stretching from The Pas to Gillam could include Cree, etc.


The next anticipated objection is that a country cannot function when divided into so many linguistic groups. To counter this, we jump ahead in our voyage to Switzerland. Quite possibly the most stable country in all of history, it is split into four distinct language districts. Street signs, schools, and even food labels switch languages entirely within the same country. In fact, while visiting the Italian-speaking canton, our Swiss German cousin had to speak to the gas attendant in English to be understood. Yet the Swiss are undoubtedly Swiss, and have been for 800 years.

It’s sometimes tempting to believe that language extinction is just a Darwinian fact of life, and that any attempt to fight natural selection is just prolonging the inevitable. In the case of Latin, for example, this is very true. In the case of First Nations languages, however, their pending extinction is entirely unnatural. The systematic destruction of these languages was never inevitable, but rather was artificially imposed in the relatively recent past. This suggests that it is entirely possible to reverse the disappearance of these languages if we support their use in public institutions. Obviously this would not entirely resolve the centuries of distrust between Canada and First Nations communities, but it would be a significant step, and would ensure that the unique perspectives offered by those languages are not lost.


Are there any good views in London?


Sometimes you overhear other travelers ask really dumb questions, and they rapidly becoming running jokes. Our time in and around London consisted of plenty of beautiful views, and a wonderful week and a half spent with my family, some of whom I’d not seen since I was fourteen (thankfully they still recognized me, despite the beard.)

The Houses of Parliament from atop the London Eye.

4 Eye


It’s hard to argue when Mom and Sara combine their boundless enthusiasm together for a common purpose…in this case, taking a ridiculous family picture on the Prime Meridian. Thankfully there were no jazz hands 😛

Our nightly (and afternoon… and early evening…) tradition: when you’re in England with a Brit during the World Cup, you don’t consider any alternatives! (Although the mood in England palpably darkened as the tournament progressed…)

Nick sheep

*Editor’s note: Leaving England for Germany before the final was a good choice… 😛

The quintessential London theatrical experience: Shakespeare’s Globe. The small, wooden, outdoor venue seems to beg the audience to shout and jeer like the unwashed masses of Shakespeare’s time. For £5 each we were able to stand with our elbows on the stage as Achilles’ sweat literally splashed down on us…it was awesome! (Note: this was not our only London theatre experience, but the other will be saved for another post.)

Midway through the week, we packed up the whole gang for an overnight trip to visit Wendy, a family friend in Glastonbury. We appreciated Wendy’s hospitality and the authentically Glastonbury experience to which we were privileged. Most famous for its epic music festival that gave birth to the likes of Lollapalooza, we saw it as the El Bolson of England, complete with men dressed as monks, women dressed as druids, and markets selling everything from homemade wool saris to A Modern Guide to Dousing. We climbed the Tor, the towering hill that watches over the town and provides space for sheep and solstice celebrations alike, and visited the Abbey which, even after weeks of ancient Roman ruins, did not fail to inspire the imagination.

J Sheryle Tor

Some of the Tor’s more colourful visitors, complete with robes, drums, and lutes.

Glastonbury’s magical roots go deep: here lay King Arthur & Guinevere.

Us and our sibs (well, some of them, at least) watching the almost-solstice sunset.

Finally, we bid adieu to the Dixons and set out towards the tiny town of Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. Our invitation here was thanks to our friend Elly, whom we had met in Antarctica, which is the kind of invitation you really can’t pass up. We arrived by taxi (after every train in western England inexplicably stopped running and Elly somehow knew which station to contact to ensure that we were put into the appropriate cab, paid for by the train company. We felt very taken care of, to say the least!) and enjoyed a lovely day meeting her family, drinking tea, and reminiscing about penguins and icebergs. There’s a very small selection of people on earth with which we can do that, and we hope to do it again some time!

Elly’s place in Nailsworth: a dramatic change of pace from chaotic London!

Elly house

A huge thank-you to Elly, Wendy, and the Farnham Dixons for their hospitality; and to the Alma Dixons for bringing us along on their Tour de England!

Congratulations victors!


Competition was fierce for the saratreetravels 50th post sweepstakes, but good things come in threes, and so do our winners (er, and the contestants, actually, but we digress).

For being the first to respond, and for her exemplary use of the Hispanic ‘¡’, this one goes out to Gwendolyn Smid:

To Mary, we will certainly ‘let’ you say that, especially since you did so in such a concise 50 characters (not including spaces, which is perfectly acceptable 🙂 ). We’ll even arrange a royal cameo in your honour:

And last but not least, for being the most blatantly flattering and dead sexy himself, a video tribute to T-Rav:

Thank you to all our contestants, and all our loyal readership. We love you guys!

Dutch Blitz 2: Bikes & Beaches


From Amsterdam, our train passed through Rotterdam, but since our photographer friend (read the backstory here) was shooting a wedding in Norway, we continued on to Delft to pay our respects to the great master of light, Vermeer.


A mere hour in Delft, Vermeer’s lifelong home, is enough to understand the bewitching quality of light that inspired Vermeer’s paintings. Three days in Delft is enough to inspire you to start a career in painting yourself!*
*Just to clarify, I mean your own career in painting, not a career dedicated to self-portraits.


Old Church

Venice is universally renowned for the beauty of its canals. However, as far as canal towns go, Delft is a strong contender for beauty, and a clear winner for not having its beauty drowned by tourists. The cobblestone streets of this charming town wind over bridges and through the town square, ringed by the Old and New churches and countless little shops offering everything from free samples of regional cheeses (needless to say, we didn’t need to eat lunch that day… Smoked goat cheese, where have you been all my life?!?) to free football jerseys with the purchase of 2 pints of Dutch beer.


Josh cheese


We were given a thoroughly authentic welcome to the town when on our first evening, two young guys hanging out their window holding orange tarps started yelling at us in Dutch. We eventually yelled back in confusion that we didn’t speak Dutch, and they politely apologized in English. “We are trying to turn our windows orange for the World Cup… You know the World Cup? (we assured them that yes, even though we didn’t know Dutch, we still had knowledge of some of the important things in life!) Do these covers look – how you say it – nicer? tucked in? Or hanging free like flags?” We carefully considered the craftsmanship of the tarps from all angles, eventually yelling back that yes, tucked in was superior. The next day, all windows were World Cup ready!

Hup Holland Hup!

Having covered several Dutch stereotypes in our first day (art, cheese, crazy language), the next day we decided to go for broke and check out the famous Dutch bike industry. Much to our delight, this stereotype also proved true!

In Winnipeg, biking is always a political statement. As a cyclist, you are at best committing to rolled eyes and incredulous looks when you tell people you bike to work. More likely, you are also committing to a daily commute of hurled insults and progressively tighter space in your lane as cars attempt to crush their feelings of defensiveness by crushing you against the curb.

This battle against bikes doesn’t exist in Holland: it can’t, due to the sheer number of bikes on the road. According to the European Cycling Federation, the Dutch make approximately 14 million bike trips per day, a fact evidenced by the ubiquitous multi-layered bike parking lots and the clear superiority of bikers’ right of way. In Winnipeg, you feel pressured to constantly apologize for being on a bike and taking up space on the road. In the Netherlands, if you stopped to apologize, you would get run over by a horde of bikes.


After walking to the train station from our lovely Airbnb home, we rented bikes for €7 and spent a glorious day biking from town to town. It was an exhilarating experience to be biking on a highway and be asked by another biker, “Oh, is Rotterdam that way?” In Manitoba, the very odd time we have seen a cyclist on the highway, we always wonder where exactly they could have come from or where they could be going… Since the next town is 200 km away, you always have to assume that Prairie highway bikers are either completely lost or completely insane!

Bike signs

Bike trip from Delft to Den Haag and the Peace Palace. Learning more about the establishment of the International Court of Justice was especially meaningful after seeing the consequences of the Nuremberg Trials (see Josh’s post here).
Den Haag

Biking continued out of the city into the dunes north of Den Haag:

Following the bike paths, we took one turn that we thought would lead us home, and ended up at the beach!

Although delighted by the beauty of the beach, we were furious at ourselves for not thinking to bring bathing suits along. The temperature had soared into the twenties, and after a long day of biking, a swim in the North Sea would have been the perfect reward. However, as we strolled along the sand, we became aware of the fact that this was the ideal beach to have forgotten a bathing suit… How serendipitous! 😉

Jelly bellies

On our last day in the Netherlands, we had one hour in the Rotterdam train station before having to catch the last train to the Hoek Van Holland ferry. That same day, our photographer friend Dorien happened to be back in Rotterdam for just one day, en route from one wedding directly to another, but traveling through the Rotterdam train station. We put our serendipitous one hour lunch together to very good use: as soon as she saw us, Dorien hugged us, then said seriously, “Okay, shall we play cards?” Good thing we carry Dutch Blitz in our backpack! 🙂


For a tiny country, the Netherlands are brimming with character, quirks, and charm. It was immensely difficult to say doei! to the Dutch, but our next adventure was calling us…


Dutch Blitz 1: From Argentina to Amsterdam


It wouldn’t necessarily seem that a volunteer at a commune in Argentina and a wedding photographer at a small get-together in rural Manitoba have a lot in common, but I’m sure that the one thing they do have in common in obvious: the Netherlands!! (Right? Isn’t it obvious?)

Three years ago, Josh and I arrived at the commune at the same time as three other WWOOF volunteers. We quickly became friends, but knew our contact with each other would be limited once we parted in Buenos Aires, since our homes were spread across the world in Winnipeg, Wisconsin, Washington, and Amsterdam. Still, we offered the quintessential travel-friend promise of “If you’re ever in _____, come visit me!”

Doce Tribus WWOOFers!

One year ago, Josh and I arrived at his grandparents’ home in rural Manitoba to attend a small get-together where his cousin got married. After the wedding, Josh and I and the wedding photographer, his cousin’s YWAM friend from Rotterdam, spent the night at his grandparents’ place. Her flight home didn’t leave until the next day, so the three of us spent the day sitting around the table playing Dutch Blitz and discussing why exactly it was called Dutch Blitz when, according to our resident Dutch expert, there was nothing Dutch about it. This of course led into a discussion of all things Dutch, which eventually culminated in that wonderful phrase: “If you’re ever in Rotterdam, come visit me!”

As stated previously, our goal of this trip was to make good on all those generous offers. Happily, it turned out that this time there was something we could offer in return. When we emailed our Argentine WWOOF comrade about visiting him in Amsterdam, he responded enthusiastically, then added that he was getting married the week after our visit. “Would you be up for some WWOOFing in my garden to get it ready for our wedding reception?” he wrote.

We arrived in Amsterdam armed with excellent directions to his apartment, but when we arrived, we couldn’t find the right house number. We contemplated singing some of the commune’s mihnka songs loudly in hopes that it would draw him out, then finally found a doorbell to a building we thought could be his. “Wouldn’t it be great,” we mused, as we waited nervously on the stoop, “if Edwin himself could just magically appear at the door?” And then… He did! Never mind the fact that we hadn’t seen each other in three years, and that the last time we saw each other was in a Buenos Aires McDonalds as we sat shell-shocked from the abrupt adjustment from the commune to mainstream civilization. It felt as though we had just said ¡ciao! yesterday (the fact that we were wearing the same travel clothes as three years ago may have helped).

Making the garden wedding-worthy: Before…
Sara garden

Josh garden

…and after!
Josh after

Sara after

Highest quality Amsterdam weed:

That evening, Edwin and Farah (his lovely fiancée) left us with insiders’ tips on where to find good music and amazing views of Amsterdam. Josh and I watched the sun go down from Bim Huis, enjoying excellent jazz performances, art exhibits, and red wine.




Since we were in Holland, it only made sense to see Amsterdam by bike… canal bike, that is! Built on a network of canals that rivals Venice, Amsterdam can only be truly appreciated from the water. Albeit a bit goofy, pedaling down the canals of Amsterdam offered a relaxing and gorgeous tour of the city, starting from Anne Frank’s house and climbing out of the river at the Van Gogh Museum.



Josh and I have discovered throughout our travels that we are infinitely more engaged by museums focused around the story of a particular individual, rather than museums that are simply massive warehouses of culture. The Van Gogh Museum* guides you chronologically through not only Van Gogh’s works of art, but also through significant events in his life, personal and professional relationships, places he lived and worked, and the evolution of his painting techniques. It was incredible learning to appreciate his work on two different levels. On one hand, great works of art have the capacity to provoke a personal response regardless of what you know or don’t know about the artist. On the other hand, knowing the technical details of a piece – the health issues leading to a move to a certain location, the history of the place where it was painted, the relationships the artist was invested in at the time of painting, the revolutionary painting techniques that discomfited society – can tell countless other tales.

*FYI pretentious people everywhere: it is not pronounced “Van Gof.” It is “Fon Hchuhch,” or try clearing your throat twice with a hiccup in between.

I am!

The Anne Frank House is an unassuming (except for the line winding around the block) apartment facade on the corner of a quiet square. Inside, all the rooms have been left untouched and completely empty at the request of Mr. Frank, as a memorial to the void left by the thousands of extinguished Jews. As you slowly move through the home, reading the accounts of co-workers who participated daily in hiding the Franks and seeing the tiny rooms still wallpapered in Anne’s magazine clippings, you begin to feel like you know this girl and her family. In so many ways, you do know them – they are simply an ordinary family who happened to live through an extraordinary time. The realization of their ordinariness makes the final room even more devastating: the attic has a series of video clips playing footage from concentration camps, and you see the brutal horror that this ordinary family was forced to endure.

There was nothing unique about Anne that she should be remembered over any other little girl. But her incredible story serves as a reminder that this horror could happen to anyone, and is happening right now to so many little girls and ordinary families. Hatred – whether it’s towards Jews, women, First Nations people – is hatred. The cause of hatred is ignorance, and the result is always destruction.

Ignorance and destruction also go hand in hand in the Red Light District. We had the chance to tour the hostel where Edwin and Farah had both worked and where they met. The Shelter is not only full of comfortable rooms, fun cafés and bars, and wonderful staff, but it also uses its proximity to the Red Light District to educate tourists on the consequences of an abusive industry that is often just taken for granted as part of the “Amsterdam experience.” The hostel is also connected with Not For Sale, which “provides job training and access to dignified employment to survivors of human trafficking.”

Berlin Wall

Amsterdam is a beautiful city with a rich culture of innovation and personal freedom. However, it needs to be asked:

Is it innovative to still participate in the medieval mindset of selling and buying humans as merchandise? Where is freedom when “personal liberties” depend on another person being enslaved? And when choices are made in ignorance, who is held responsible for the resulting destruction?

The Wall


As pictured in the previous post, we left Nuremburg laden with heaps of homemade vittles that made us the envy of the bus. That bus took us onward, both geographically and historically, to Berlin. Having seen the rise and fall of Nazism in Nuremburg, we would now see the regime that came to dominate the region next. The Berlin Wall was a very different kind of history, as its fall occurred within our own lifetime. And unlike every other piece of history we’ve seen so far, it is most famous not because of any emperor or army, but because of the ordinary, jeans-and-tshirt folks that brought it down.

The west side, with its twenty-some years of accumulated graffiti. Needless to say, the spraypaint industry is still booming.


The east side, which was perfectly clean until 1989 as it was guarded by guns, dogs, and barbed wire. Since then, internationally renowned street artists have redeemed this stretch of wall, known as the East Side Gallery.


A stretch of wall at the Memorial. The vast empty space between the fence and the wall made it easy for the guards in the tower to shoot escapees. As a result, both Easterners and Westerners dug tunnels under the wall, helping hundreds of East Berliners to escape the Soviet regime.


Just one of the stories of ridiculous courage told at the Berlin Wall Memorial.


The Brandenburg Gate. Anti- and pro-Soviet rallies would occur simultaneously for decades, separated by only this and a few feet of brick.


On our last evening here, we visited Checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors of Cold War Berlin. As a jaded Bush-era youth, it was a real paradigm shift to see America as a true hero, yet here that is undoubtedly the case. Thousands of men, women, and children risked their lives to escape into the American sector where they would be guaranteed a flight to the West. The West Berlin Fire Brigade, funded largely by the U.S., was on hand 24/7 with nets to catch refugees jumping from border apartment windows to freedom. Standing at Checkpoint Charlie, I would not have been offended if someone had mistaken me for an American.

As we left this place, we wondered what had happened during our short lifetimes to change America’s image so drastically. Perhaps part of it is the difference between invitation and invasion: in Germany, the U.S. stayed within its agreed-upon boundaries, offering liberty to all who entered. Today that liberty is a matter of foreign policy, enforced by bombs and economic austerity measures. As much as I love the idea of a borderless world, it was respect for international boundaries that made America a hero in this case, rather than a destructive force. Every new conflict is an opportunity for the West (not just America) to return to this earlier version of heroism, allowing people to choose for themselves whether they want what is being offered.

The gateway to the Free World (with the Golden Arches of capitalism welcoming you into their open arms!)


Wandering Canadians adopted by German family


There may not be a formal border crossing anymore (God bless the EU), but it’s impossible not to notice the world changing as you pass from Italy into the Germanic world (first Austria, then Germany itself). Pizzerias are rapidly replaced by metzgerei (butcher shops), portion sizes increase threefold (a very welcome change!), and the feeble linguistic assistance provided by French and Spanish disappears completely.

Yet a mere week in Germany has made us feel more at home here than three weeks in Italy. And much of that has to do with these folks:


Two years ago, meine Oma (hereafter referred to as Erna) travelled to Germany to reconnect with the many relatives that, for many decades, were living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Though we knew nobody in Germany personally, Erna’s stories prompted us to send her an email a few months back, asking about these German connections.

She put us in touch with her cousin’s daughter, Irina, who lives with her husband and three sons in Nuremburg, a city rich with history both medieval and modern. We exchanged a few emails and received a very generous invitation to spend a long weekend with them. The only note of apprehension was found at the end of the last email: “I don’t speak any English. I’ve been using a translation program this whole time”.

With three hours left til our arrival, therefore, Sara and I cozied around the iPad on the train and frantically tried to learn as much Deutsch as we could. We got through lessons 1-8 of 85, and got really good at talking about the weather, when suddenly we were in Nuremburg.

We were overcome once again by what we’ve come to call ‘blind date jitters,’ but we were comforted by our Argentine experiences. Family is family, and language barriers are nothing compared to sincere smiles and non-verbal appreciation of good food.

We stepped off the train, disoriented as usual upon entering a new country, only to be immediately greeted by a very friendly couple, who turned out to be Irina and her husband Artur. They walked us to their Volkswagen van and drove us to their beautiful home in the nearby town of Burgfarrnbach, serendipitously speaking in perfectly understandable English (I guess their definition of ‘no English’ was a little less literal than our definition of ‘no Deutsch’).

For the next few days, we no longer felt like backpackers, but like family. We exchanged family histories since our ancestors had parted ways in the interwar years (Artur was born in Uzbekistan, and both of them grew up speaking Russian before finally being allowed back into Germany in the early ’90s!), ate every German delicacy imaginable (Attention mennonite family back home: they put mincemeat in their rollküchen, and it’s AWESOME!), and met more wonderful relatives. The rest of them did not speak as much English, but between their Russian, Sara’s Ukrainian, and sampling of many local brews, we were able to communicate just fine.

Family dinners cooked by Oma need no translation!


Another lovely family lunch, this time with Irina’s brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids.


They also took it upon themselves to acquaint us with the historical significance of the area. Nuremburg is known worldwide as the site of the Nuremburg trials, in which Hitler’s inner circle was tried and convicted. What we didn’t know was that this site was chosen because Nuremburg had been the capital of Hitler’s rise to power before the war. Holding the trials here in this city, therefore, was not only a final slap in the face to the Nazi regime, but also a form of healing for Nuremburgers seeking to move on.

Originally a landing pad for zeppelins, this massive square became the site of Hitler’s rallies, immortalized in black & white videos of goose-stepping soldiers. Today the power of evil has been replaced with something more wholesome: skateboarders and a hockey arena.

Hitler's podium

Posted at the former rally grounds, this image dramatically captures fascism’s failure.


Courtroom 600, in which many Nazi leaders were tried and convicted.


The concept of trying world leaders for crimes of global scale was born at Nuremburg, and now continues here in The Hague, Netherlands, at the International Peace Palace. Though we’ve jumped forward a few days now in our travels, this picture belongs here with the theme of ‘power paying tribute to justice’, as Chief Attorney Robert Jackson put it at the Nuremburg trials.


And finally, to lighten the mood, an earlier bit of history from when people were slightly less destructive and a lot more ridiculous:

The medieval town of Rotenburg, one of our day trips with the Heinrich family, showcases a piece of their history in their central clock tower. Every day at noon, these mannequins remind us of the legendary mayor of this German town, who agreed to humiliate himself by drinking three liters of French wine in exchange for his town NOT being burned down by the French army. On a potentially related note, this region of Germany now has a booming local wine industry. Way to take one for the team, buddy.

Heinrich & Kress family, vielen dank for an incredible long weekend. You made us feel so at home. Our apartment is pretty small, but we’ll fit all of you in if you ever have a chance to come to Winnipeg! And ps. There are lots of eichhörnchen in Winnipeg too!! 😉

20140613-011507-4507274.jpg20140613-011510-4510236.jpgRoad trip snacks packed by Irina and Oma Lillia: yes, that is a panful of homemade perogies and a tub of sour cream (and two bags of beljaschi and a massive bag of Russian chocolates and apples and tomatoes and cookies and…) These people must be family!!!