“WE TRAVEL TO LEARN; AND I HAVE NEVER BEEN IN ANY COUNTRY WHERE THEY DID NOT DO SOMETHING BETTER THAN WE DO IT, THINK SOME THOUGHTS BETTER THAN WE THINK, CATCH SOME INSPIRATION FROM HEIGHTS ABOVE OUR OWN.” – Maria Mitchell
Gandhi said that, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, and so it was that I began finding – or rather creating – myself in 1997, halfway around the world in East Germany, as I embarked on a two year service mission to provide Humanitarian service to the people there.
To me, the rich history and diverse architecture of Germany rivals any sites you might see in Greece and Rome. Though the stories it tells are vastly different, their lessons and testimony still speak to the power of human innovation, imagination, and perseverance. And, even if only because I know of the great minds that were born or lived here, the air seems ripe with inspiration.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, an influential leader of the Protestant Reformation, visited the quaint town of Eilenburg several times as he met with other key contributors and preached in the Church of Mary; a breathtaking building still standing today. Lutherstadt Wittenberg is a charming town and home to the Augustinian Monastery where Luther lived with his wife, and location of the All Saints’ Church where Luther nailed his revolutionary 95 theses on the door.
I heard stories of the devastating toll that World War II had on cities like Eilenburg (it is said that 90% of the town center was destroyed due to bombings), Leipzig, and Halle, and how the cities and the insuppressible people were reborn in the decades after.
Leipzig and Halle each boast their own claim to classical music fame. Prominent composers Richard Wagner and Johann Sebastian Bach both have ties to the historic city of Leipzig. Wagner was born in Leipzig, and Bach lived in Leipzig until his death. Leipzig now houses the Leipzig Bach Museum, and holds an annual Bach Festival. Illustrious composer Georg Frideric Händel was born in vibrant Halle, and his former home has become the Handel House & Museum.
But music and religion aren’t the only disciplines where Germans were exquisitely inspired. Beautiful, awe-inspiring cathedrals and churches dot the landscape of Germany. Winsome St. Thomas Church in Leipzig is renowned for its associations with talented composers like Bach and Wagner, and also for its religious ties to Martin Luther. The picturesque Cathedral of St. James in Görlitz was badly damaged during the last days of WWII and just finished the last of its restorations in 2012. And the Cathedral of St. Peter in Bautzen, both enchanting and classic, was the first church built around 1000 AD.
And Schwarzenberg, nestled on the southwestern slopes of the Ore Mountains, evokes images of those fairy tale stories we were told as children. Especially as your gaze rolls over the Black Forest and you can almost imagine you can see the piercing yellow eyes of a wolf, waiting patiently at the forest’s border, or swear you can hear the sweet song of Rapunzel, locked away in her tower, carried on the breeze. And one could envision Sleeping Beauty slumbering peacefully in the highest tower of Schwarzenberg Schloss, or the vain and cruel step-mother of Snow White, primping and preening before her magic mirror, petitioning it to answer who was “the fairest of them all.”
But of all inspirations and influences I experienced, none were as remarkable and meaningful as the people I met. Melodie Ramone said it best when she said, “Some people you meet and they’re your friend for a day. Some you meet and you never really know at all. And then there are those who get caught inside your soul and stay there forever.” The people of Germany are some of the most humble, hardworking, friendly, genuine, and hospitable people I have ever had the pleasure of serving. They epitomize the courage and indomitable spirit that is at the heart of humankind. And they will be forever caught inside my soul as an integral part of the man I am today.