Clippings: Trip abroad puts age in perspective

My brother-in-law Steve and I love to joke about how “old” we’re getting. He’ll ask me what it was like to witness the Boston Tea Party, and if I ever forget where I put my musket. I’ll ask him how he was able correspond with friends prior to the Pony Express, and whether he still gets cost-of-living bumps in his Civil War veteran’s pension.
In reality, we are both just a little north of 50. So while we both receive mail from AARP, we can hardly lay claim to being truly grizzled or wise.
After spending nine days traveling around Europe late last month, I realize how truly insignificant 50 years is — when measured against the timeline of civilization “across the pond.”
My wife and I had the good fortune of taking a cruise down the Rhine River, from Amsterdam in the Netherlands through Germany and the Alsace region of France, to Basel, Switzerland.
The Swiss chocolate was almost as sweet as the eye candy, which came in the form of centuries-old cathedrals, castles, churches, farmhouses and palaces that in some cases pre-date the Middle Ages. More impressive still is that these venerable structures miraculously escaped the massive bombing assaults of World War II.
Speaking of World War II, I thought of my late grandfather as we toured Amsterdam and Volendam in Holland. My grandfather had spent time convalescing with a family in Holland after his release from a prisoner of war camp, following the Battle of the Bulge. I wondered if he had taken in some of the same scene that I was viewing in Amsterdam — namely, the stately homes lining busy canals, the West Church, the old port, and the home in which Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Nazis.
In Cologne, Germany, we marveled at the twin spires of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Mary’s. I tried to wrap my mind around the construction logistics of this ornate, Gothic edifice that was initiated in 1248 — around 250 years before Columbus set sail for the new world. It was considered the most ambitious building project of the Middle Ages, producing spires that are 157 meters tall.
While 1248 is a considerable step back in time, I learned that Cologne’s organized settlement pattern went back to the Roman era. I strode along stone paths dating back almost 2,000 years, imagining the metallic clank of a centurion’s armor.
That I was able to see anything dating before 1945 was amazing to me. Allied bombers conducted more than 260 raids on Cologne during World War II — primarily by the Royal Air Force — in an effort to weaken the despotic Third Reich. The pilots apparently did a good job avoiding some historical landmarks, though many were rendered to rubble by almost 35,000 tons of bombs.
Those of us who did not venture out of the ship were still able to see a vast amount of history along the shores of the Rhine as we made our way to Switzerland. Medieval castles in various states of disrepair adorned lofty perches on both banks of the famous river. Some seemed plucked from a fairytale, and had been repurposed into luxury hotels or private mansions. Others lay in ruins, still reverberating with the sounds of the military assaults that had put them out of commission centuries ago.
In Strasbourg, France, we were, of course, dazzled by the cathedral of Notre Dame, one of the most celebrated examples of Gothic artwork one can find. Gazing at the cathedral’s 465-foot tower is enough to make you dizzy, while the hundreds of sculptures that stand out from the cathedral’s wall form a beautiful collage of history for a city that has changed hands multiple times between the French and Germans as a result of military campaigns.
Again, I couldn’t help but be drawn up in the history. Strasbourg Cathedral was a work in progress between 1015 and 1439, and continues to undergo renovations. One building being erected over the course of 420 years. That’s almost twice as long as the United States has been a country. Older doesn’t mean better, but the timeline makes one realize how “young” we truly are in the U.S.
We returned from our trip this past Friday with a lot of memories and new friendships brewed over a glass or two of German beer and fermented with more than a few glasses of wine. And the trip also allowed me to appreciate that age is relative, depending on which continent you call home.

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