Monday, September 23, 2013

Forum:What's the most memorable place you've ever been?

Every week on Monday morning , the Council and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher's Forum, short takes on a major issue or simply an interesting topic of the day. This week's question: What's the most memorable place you've ever been?

The Colossus of Rhodey: For me it was the American World War 2 cemetery in Luxembourg. In 1982 at age 17 I was fortunate to had been selected to play in what was called the American Youth Jazz Band. Musicians were selected from various mid-Atlantic states (I played saxophone), and after four months of practice here in the States we would journey to Europe for a three-week tour of various countries. This was all financed by an elderly philanthropist who had inherited a substantial amount of money back in the day (may she R.I.P.).

On the leg of our last stop, Luxembourg, we stopped by the above mentioned cemetery. On our tour bus up until this point, the mood was, as it had been every day, quite festive. We were notified, of course, upon exiting the bus, to maintain a dignified posture while walking through the cemetery. Unbeknownst to me, this is the cemetery where General George Patton is laid to rest. What is striking about his grave (cross) is that it is no different from that of any other soldier's in the park except that it sits just a bit apart from the main body of crosses and Stars of David, and it marked with a sign (for lack of a better term).

The first feeling you experience is that of being overwhelmed. You simply cannot believe just how many graves there are in this place. It's seemingly endless. Then, you notice the ages noted on the crosses/Stars of David: Virtually all between 18 and 24. These men all died so that we could live as freely -- and comfortably -- as we do now. Within a few minutes I simply could not contain my emotions any longer. I began crying. I really lost it when I found the first cross of a soldier who was from Delaware (my home state).

When we all got back on the bus, there were no words spoken by anyone. There also weren't any dry eyes. Many years later when I saw Saving Private Ryan in the theatre, I broke down crying during one of the very first scenes -- when the [now-older] Ryan visits the cemetery where those who saved him are buried. It took me back instantly to that day in 1982.

That visit in Luxembourg helped to solidify my young view of just how unique -- and great -- the United States is as a nation. Though my parents are moderately liberal, my maternal grandfather was a Naval aviator (late 1940s-early 1950s) who unfortunately was killed way too soon. But my grandmother -- his wife -- never let me forget how important men like my grandfather are ... how important it is to grasp how so many -- so many young men -- sacrificed themselves in WW II for us. For the world.

There simply are no words.

 The Razor: The Mahale Mountains rise above Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania and are a protected national park. The Wife and I lived in this isolated place in the mid 1990’s for a year while she studied wild chimpanzees. It’s only accessible by bush plane or speed boat. The main peaks of the massif are covered with grass and a stubble of trees that brush against a sky. On a windy day when I saw the mountains from their foothills I felt myself suspended above a moving sea of endless shades of green, soaking in the play of light and shadow on forested slopes and exposed crags, the way the peaks often bore streaming banners of clouds, the shining places where water tumbled down sheer rock faces before passing into unseen valleys. From our research camp Nkungwe rose to the north, the tallest peak of the short chain, its bald crown peppered with large boulders like so many grains of sand. Pasagula was just visible behind it, like a younger brother peering over the shoulder of the elder. Unlike Nkungwe all of Pasagula is thickly forested except for a broad brown treeless swath which cut slightly below the peak. To the south the slopes of Nkungwe descend steeply into the narrow valley cut by the Kasiha river. The chain continues southeast, intersected by ridges and seasonal streams, to the broad floodplain of the Lubulungu River. Beyond that, rising through the haze on the far horizon, were the rugged looking mountains of Nganja, an area of thick and still unexplored bush which we thought might shelter buffalo, elephant, antelope and lion. And covering it all from the mountains to the narrow ribbon of beach and the blue waters of the lake was the nearly unbroken sweep of the forest where countless species of birds, monkeys, leopards, ungulates, and chimpanzees called home. It was truly the most beautiful place I have ever lived, let alone visited. There isn’t a day that passes without me thinking about that place.

Then there’s Japan. We lived in Kyoto Japan for 4 years in the 1990’s. There isn’t a day when I don’t think about that place either, but for opposite reasons.

Liberty's Spirit:There are many places that have special meaning to me. The first place I ever loved to go visit is Colonial Williamsburg. Being propelled back into the era that fostered our founding fathers and mothers brought the period of the American Revolution to life. Secondly is the Freedom Tail in Boston, which brings to life the fight for liberty during the colonial era. There is so much to learn and to try to understand about that time in our American history that I could never have enough time to enjoy the experience. And I went to school in Boston so I had plenty of time to explore.

The next places are all in Washington DC. We lived in DC for years and I remember when we first moved to town, being so overwhelmed everyday when went to work driving past The White House, and the Capital at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Seeing these buildings was the real life vision of the democracy I love and honor. Meanwhile, I always adored going to the National Archives where people can view the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Also during a tour of the Capital I was able to stand on the exact spot where Abraham Lincoln’s congressional desk stood. Without a doubt the Lincoln memorial is quite overwhelming. Seeing the life-size Lincoln reminds everyone what he stood for and how he led our nation during such a crucial period as the Civil War. But the most devastating moment I experienced in Washington DC, was at The Vietnam War Memorial. It was seeing the names of those men and women who died in that War, which brings to the forefront the true sacrifice that so many make on behalf of our liberties. (I have actually never been to Arlington Cemetery, but I can imagine that that experience is so very more humbling.)

Some of my most memorable places are the full "circle of freedom" for me: Williamsburg, Boston to DC.

I have parallel religious places that I find important as well. They are in Israel. The Kotel Ha’Maariv, The Western Wall of the Temple, is a very emotional experience. I could never understand why with all the generations I was permitted to return to Jerusalem. There is something amazing about being able to walk in the footsteps of your biblical ancestors and touch parts of the world in which they lived. To see the miracle of a nation reborn is awe-inspiring. This is history being lived every day. Every prayer and hope of the Jewish people over thousands of years have been answered. It is amazing to know that in more than one way I am truly a free and very blessed person.

Bookworm Room: The most memorable place I've been to? I've had the good fortune to go to more memorable places than I can count. The reason, of course, is that there are so many metrics by which one can describe something as being memorable.

For example, I've been to many of the the greatest museums the world has to offer. My favorite museum, though, because I found it the most meaningful, continues to be the Tenement Museum in New York City. Yad Vashem, although the most devastating place I've ever been, is also the most important museum, and therefore memorable in a way simultaneously terrible and important. Mauthausen, the only concentration camp I've visited, meets that metric too.

Places? Well, it depends if you're talking natural or man-made beauty, and even then I can't quite nail it down. I do think, though, that my favorite National Park is Yellowstone. It is the most amazing place I've ever been because the earth's crust there is so thin. Everything is gorgeous, everything is a riot of color, and everything is so dynamic. It is truly one of the wonders of the world.

As for human places, the older I get, the more vacant I like them. Once upon a time, I might have said that my favorite city is "Vienna," which is, somehow, an amazingly feminine city architecturally. (Unlike London, which is an aggressively masculine city when it comes to architecture.) Or perhaps I might have said Tel Aviv, which is beyond ugly, but so vibrant that aesthetics seem irrelevant. As time goes by, though, I find myself drawn more to places where humans touch only lightly on the land. That's why, on my last vacation, my favorite places were Skjolden, in Norway, which is a tiny village at the end of a long, long fjorde, and the Shetland Islands, which occupy the northern-most region of great Britain. Humankind doesn't dominate the landscape in these places, it blends in with it.

Schools? The most memorable are Texas and Leeds, although most people would say that both of those places lack charm. Charm-shmarm -- they are in the memorable category because I was so happy there. Decades on, I doubt that I would enjoy either place now but in those days, they were definitely the right places at the right time, and will live enshrined in my memory. High school was also a memorable place, not because I particularly enjoyed it, but because those three years shaped me in such profound ways. I've spent the 30 plus years since I left trying to shake off many of the memorable scars it left on my psyche.

I've traveled extensively for the last thirty years, mostly to Europe, but with enough forays in North America, Latin America, the Middle East, and Japan to have something of a sense of all those places. Each offers amazing natural beauty and impressive cultural institutions. But the place I always carry with me in my heart -- my most memorable place -- is my home and my country.

The Independent Sentinel: Mt. Rushmore surprised me. I went there as an afterthought because I was nearby. Having traveled widely, I didn't think it would impress me much. All I could say was, 'Wow!' People around me kept saying the same thing, 'Wow.'

The Civil War battlefields made a difference in my life. I didn't realize what that war might have been like until I walked the grounds they walked, envisioned the tens of thousands who died in the orchards in Gettysburg, visited Fords Theater...

The most memorable was probably Ellis Island because of my husband's grandmother who came through as a 12-year old by herself. We even found a photo of the ship she traveled on from Austria.

The Glittering Eye:  Over the years I've been to all sorts of memorable places. The Grand Canyon. Mesa Verde. The British Museum. The Louvre. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado as a thunderstorm rolled into the canyon. Hiking to the top of Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California with my then-girlfriend, now wife.

However, I tend not to think in terms of memorable places so much as place made memorable by the experiences I've had there. Of those I'll name just two.

The first was Club 33 in Disneyland. Unknown to most people it's a private club hidden one flight up in the heart of New Orleans Square at 33 Royal Street. My wife and I dined at the excellent restaurant at the club, the only place in Disneyland where you can get a cocktail, beer, or wine as guests of her uncle who was then a club member. A truly unique perspective on the happiest place on earth and a truly memorable experience.

The other was Fort William. Nestled at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the Scottish Highlands, it's located on the shore of Loch Linnhe. There the land rises from the wild, rough loch sharply to the heights of the mountain. When my wife and I arrived there, in the 1000 m. walk between the train station and our B&B we experienced sunshine, rain, sleet, and snow and arrived wet and bedraggled. Our wonderfully hospitable host and hostess welcomed us with warm towels, hot tea, and freshly-baked shortbread. A delightfully memorable experience and place.

In the final analysis I don't think that places alone are memorable but they become memorable by the experiences you have there and the people you love with whom you share them.

 Well, there you have it.

Make sure to tune in every Monday for the Watcher’s Forum. And remember, every Wednesday, the Council has its weekly contest with the members nominating two posts each, one written by themselves and one written by someone from outside the group for consideration by the whole Council. The votes are cast by the Council, and the results are posted on Friday morning.

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