Dresden… Dresden… Dresden…
I thought of the city daily for months before my trip to Europe. I was enchanted by the place, and had been since I was a kid.
When I was very young, my sister Ryan lived and worked there for a short time, and the photos she brought back kindled something in me. I was not even a teenager yet, and there she was traveling the great cities of Europe. I think I knew even then that I would follow in her footsteps.
Here she is (on the left) at Schloss Moritzburg, just oustide Dresden–a castle with origins in the 16th century. There are red deer antlers on the wall here that are like 400 years old! So if you ever get in trouble with your partner for “hoarding” stuff, just remember: this castle has been hoarding antlers for centuries…
And on the lawn at Schloss Moritzburg. Doesn’t she just look cool? How could I not follow?
Then there were photos like this next one–Ryan hanging out with her cool friends in Europe. You know, no big deal… Oh and by the way, did you notice the Blaues Wunder (the Blue Wonder) in the background? This bridge is famous for many reasons, among which: much of Dresden was destroyed in WWII, but this bridge survived the bombing and chaos.
And–I don’t know…these photos her friends would snap of her in the most random situations just completely sucked me in. They still do. I mean, this could be anywhere, any city.
And yet it’s just the kind of photo that made me long to explore the world like her. Some things I just can’t explain.
This next one is a shot from a coal fired, wooden train. Sounds dangerous! But look at how charming the scene is!
Ryan’s photos from Dresden and beyond tugged on something in me, plain and simple.
When I was in Europe in 2007, I really wanted to visit Dresden, but I ran out of time and never made it. This only added to its mythological status in my mind. Also, over the years I’d learned that some of my ancestors hailed from Dresden and the surrounding area. There seemed to be many things pulling me there, but I never quite made it. I needed a clear goal–a mission.
And then one winter morning, out of the blue, an email arrived from the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden (DHMD). The DHMD was putting together an exhibition on friendship called, simply, “Freundschaft,” and wanted to know if they could include the bottle I’d found from John E. Freeland, which you can read about here. They felt, as I do, that John’s bottle captures perfectly the spirit of the unlikely friendships that come from this ancient and unusual form of communication. Although John had passed away by the time I found his bottle, I was able to reunite the bottle with his son, Phil, and Phil’s family, including Phil’s wife, Fran, and daughter (John’s granddaughter) Melanie–and ever since, Phil and I have been friends.
It may sound funny, but I did not immediately agree to have the bottle go on display. You see, I realize that many people think of messages in bottles as “trash”. Amazingly, many people who find them throw them away after reading the note once! But for me, every message in a bottle is a unique treasure, a sacred item that symbolizes the bond–however strong or weak–between myself and the sender. I could no more bring myself to let go of a message in a bottle I’d found than a treasured family heirloom. Ain’t gonna happen.
And there’s the rub: In order for John’s bottle to go on display in Dresden, I would have to ship it. That meant turning over one of my most prized possessions to complete strangers and hoping they would care for it. Also, this message in a bottle survived for 34 years at sea–which is crazy! Unlikely, to say the least. And after all that, I became its caretaker. Can you imagine how devastating it would be for myself and Phil if his dad’s bottle were damaged while out of our reach?
Finally I got in touch with Phil, explained the situation, and he agreed to the whole thing right away! I knew then that Phil’s dad’s message in a bottle, though it had already logged many a soggy mile, had one more great adventure to make before it could rest.
I constructed the box in which the bottle would ship. I’ll spare you the details, but I really think you could have taken a good swing at this thing with a bat and it wouldn’t damage the bottle inside. When I dropped off the box at the FedEx office, it felt like I was handing them a bit of my heart. I hoped they would protect it.
The whole time I had been talking with the museum, talking with Phil, and building the box, etc., I had been dreaming of visiting the bottle in the museum. At first, it sounded like a pipe dream. It’s an expensive, long trip–how could I justify flying all the way to Germany just to see a message in a bottle that I was already quite familiar with? But the desire to see the MIB in the museum took root–and there was no shaking it.
One day I simply realized: Something I found is going to be on display in a prestigious museum. If I don’t go to see it, I will regret it for the rest of my life.
Of course, I had other business in Europe, too: many of the senders of bottles I have found live in Europe and England, and this would be my chance to finally meet them!
It’s curious to think that John Freeland’s bottle was the main catalyst for my trip to Europe to meet message in a bottle senders. I mean, John was a guy who was from a small town in Iowa (I am from a small town in Illinois), and he grew up to travel the world, making friends in countries around the globe (sound familiar?). The spirit of what he did with his time on earth matches perfectly with what I want to do by making friends with MIB senders. And now, John, via his bottle, was creating the perfect scenario for me to go meet folks. If his bottle hadn’t been requested by the museum, I don’t think I would have gone to Europe at all. It was the goal I had always needed to reach Dresden!
So that’s how I ended up on the train from Hamburg to Dresden on Sunday, July 5th 2015.
Well, it took several trains, actually. And, well, a few of them were delayed. And that required re-routing my trip. That wouldn’t be a problem except guess what? Monday, July 6th–my only full day in Dresden–the museum would be closed. Originally I planned on getting to the museum Sunday about 3 hours before closing time. As my trains were delayed and I had to change my route, though, I realized I would only arrive about 30 minutes before closing, if I was lucky.
There was one possibility lurking in the corners of my mind that I didn’t want to consciously consider. Luckily, when I travel–especially with a mission like this–I get tunnel vision, and I focus in a way I can’t when sedentary. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain there was a little gremlin cackling, “You’ll never make it! You came all this way just to see your message in a bottle displayed in a museum, to feel vindicated and validated, and it’s all going to come to nothing! Nothing!!!”
But this intense focus that channels all my energy into reaching my destination kept that little sucker at bay. I wound my way to Dresden, and when I got out at the train station there, I grabbed a little Stadtplan (city map) and walked in my sister’s footprints to the Deutsches Hygiene Museum, 15 or 20 minutes away.
I’m not sure if I took the most direct route, but it was beautiful–I wandered through a large park with beautiful artwork scattered around.
Man, I got to the museum just in time.
I dropped off my luggage (yep, all of it!) in the bag/coat check room downstairs, then headed up to the exhibit. I have to say, I was impressed by the size of this building. Before I arrived, I wondered what kind of museum this would be–small and obscure? Nope! It’s large and prestigious!
Of course, at each “checkpoint” in the museum, staff pointed out to me that closing time was soon, and indicated that maybe I’d be better off coming back another day.
“We close in 30 minutes.”
“We close in 25 minutes. But you could come back on Tuesday.”
“Yes, I know–thanks though!”
“We close in 20 minutes. Wouldn’t you rather come back on Tuesday?”
When I found the entrance to the exhibit, the fellow attending it looked at my entry card and said some things that confused me–I thought he was saying that this card only allowed entrance to the other exhibits, but not this one. Of course, we were speaking in German so I may have misunderstood–luckily he took pity on me and switched to English. I quickly tried to explain who I was and why I was there, and then HE was the confused one!
“You came from America?”
“To see this exhibit?”
“Yes–something of mine is on display here.”
“Oh. Really? Something of yours?”
“Yes. Have you seen the message in a bottle? The Flaschenpost?”
“The Flaschenpost? Yes.”
“I found that!”
“You found that?!”
“Yes! And I’m only here until very early Tuesday morning, so this is my only chance to see it.”
“Well we close in 15 minutes. Are you sure you can’t come back?”
“Oh. Well, in that case, let me show you where the bottle is.”
Then this man, who was actually very friendly and courteous, led me into the exhibit. And just like that, we walked through a doorway, and there was John Freeland’s bottle–I had found it again. It looked so small and unassuming in that room full of other fascinating objects. But I guess that’s the whole point–that it is an unusual item to symbolize friendship. Not a gift, not a letter to a friend, just a call into the void, a gesture from a stranger to a stranger. Many of the other objects in the room with my bottle symbolized friendships that were already longstanding when the objects were made–like letters between friends (including really famous people, like Goethe! Crazy!). Other items were gifts between public figures–a sort of forced friendship. But John’s bottle symbolized something else entirely–not forced friendship, not established, longstanding friendship, but rather, the genesis of friendship, the moment of conception, so to speak…the big bang.
Think about your friends. Can you remember the very first moment you met? What you said to each other? I can usually remember early-ish meetings, but not the exact moment we met, not the details. With John’s bottle, it’s different. I remember the moment I stood over it on the beach and hoped I would meet him. I remember what the light was like, what the wind was like, I remember exactly how the bottle lay under a dead bush, and I remember hoping right then that I would get to find John and meet him. That didn’t happen, of course, but I did meet his son’s family, which was a great gift. And now, surrounded by gifts between presidents, letters between famous people, important paintings from hundreds of years ago–against this backdrop–we reunited, in a way. I felt they were all with me there–Phil, his wife, his daughter, and, of course, John. In a foreign land, it gave me great comfort to be with friends again.
Before the museum closed and I was escorted out, I was able to get one picture of me with the bottle–a treasured memento of the epic journey to find John’s bottle a 2nd time in Dresden instead of on the beach.
It was so cool to see a message in a bottle I’d found under that fancy museum glass! To some, my funky little bottle may have seemed out of place in a room containing letters to Goethe and similar cultural treasures, but to me, it felt like I had finally found an institution that understood the value of a message in a bottle. Now, I don’t just mean that this specific bottle is valuable to me personally–of course it is. More importantly, messages in bottles are culturally significant for a variety of reasons. MIBs are conceived of in pop culture as many things–as a cry for help, salvation, or rescue, as in the Police song; as a symbol of romance and the unpredictable nature of love, as in the Nicholas Sparks book. MIBs have been significant to science for centuries, revealing ocean currents long before GPS-tracked devices existed. And finally, MIBs have long been used by the adventurous as a means of collecting pen pals from distant nations. Think about that for a second–imagine becoming friends (as John did) with people from countries far away, who believed in different gods and political systems, who had different values and behaviors. The message in a bottle teaches us that it is possible for people from such different cultures to put aside ideology, shake off whatever stereotypes they hold about their pen pal’s country, and consider each other as real humans, as friends, who have families and goals and strengths and weaknesses–as real people instead of ideas or stereotypes. This is especially important and valuable between countries whose governments do not like each other very much: It is easy to hate a stereotype; it is harder to hate an individual.
I left the museum thinking about this, but was struck by the message of the banners on the museum. In English and German, the banners said: “Promoting an open society in Dresden–People and ideas from all over the world.”
That message goes unspoken in America for the most part, because museums are understood to be cultural mixing grounds. But think: This is Dresden, a city in East Germany, not terribly long after the fall of the wall, really–just a couple decades. It’s not as if the wall fell and the East became party central overnight. The cloistered mentality of an earlier time still lingers, however faint, in Dresden today. Later, my host explained to me that there is a highly conservative group in Dresden called PEGIDA that opposes immigration, etc. (Sidenote: PEGIDA’s founder resigned after photos appeared of him posing as Hitler.) The group is actually quite large and powerful, and holds huge public demonstrations in Dresden. After learning about PEGIDA, the banner on the museum made a lot more sense to me. In a different culture (America, for example–or maybe even western Germany), such a banner would not be necessary. No museum would have to proclaim that it was promoting an open society, because it is simply understood that that is what museums do: they share, whether it be art, history, or whatever. But, in Dresden, this seemingly simple sign is actually a powerful political statement. It is the museum’s way of pushing back on the idea that Germany should be closed-off, or insulated. Suddenly the significance of my/John’s bottle being on display there became even greater, and I was honored to be part of the effort to promote an open society in Dresden, even in the very minor way I was involved.
The rest of my visit to Dresden was everything I had always hoped it would be and more. I hung out in a real German biergarten, complete with live music, portable palm trees, and real glass mugs–no plastic solo cups here!
Checked out a beautiful old building in the middle of a park (I can almost see my sister standing here):
Had some delicious, hearty potato soup with speck, served with dark bread:
Had coffee on a dark, drizzly morning while writing outside a corner cafe across the street from this gothic-looking church:
Affixed to the same church, found this sign which is, to me, equal parts hilarious, inscrutable, and sad:
Spent half a day wandering around this incredible old fortress east of Dresden called Festung Koenigstein:
I mean, this place truly looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings–it’s hard to believe it’s real. You’d have to be completely nuts to attack it. The bedrock that rises out of the land here is built upon in a way that feels almost organic–like the stones laid by men and the stone of the earth become one…
The rock across the river in this video clip is basically what the fortress is built upon–in this region, large plumes of rock jut up out of the land. Handy place to build an impenetrable fortress of doom, right?
Imagine: your boss orders you to attack the fortress, and this next image is what you are looking up at after you somehow climb the various earthworks fringed with awful spikes before you get here. Actually, if you got this far, you’d have good reason to be pretty proud of yourself! Just a little further to the top!
Ah, this gives you an idea of the spikes–they’re probably about 18 inches long:
From the village below, the fortress looks like this:
After the fortress, I hopped on the train back to Dresden. The walk to the train station included some impressive street art:
Back in Dresden, it was time to check out the amazing architecture I’d heard about and seen in my sister’s photos. Of course, in Germany, and perhaps especially Dresden, you are constantly surrounded by this enchanting mix of history and modernity. Many of these buildings were bombed during WWII, and rebuilt later.
There’s the Dresden Opera House (Semperoper):
Then there’s Frauenkirche, a particularly humbling building. Look closely, and you’ll see the blocks aren’t all the same. During WWII, this church was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden. After the war, the bombed out ruins of the church were left as they were–crumbling, destroyed–as a kind of memorial to the war. They stayed this way until the 1990s, when Germany decided to rebuild the church.
They rebuilt the church using the ruins as much as possible. Some sections remained standing (more or less), but much had to be rebuilt with new stones. The dark stones you see scattered among the light stones are from the old church. These very stones were scattered by the bombs dropped on Dresden in WWII. After many years as memorial ruins, the church went from this:
Dresden also has an impressive museum complex, with this amazingly landscaped interior courtyard.
All the buildings around the perimeter are museums. Alas, the ones I wanted to visit were closed when I was there! But it’s still a treat to walk around this area.
I don’t remember all the names of all the buildings I saw–but in Dresden’s Altstadt, you can’t turn around without seeing some amazing piece of architecture, like these old buildings:
I could go on. There’s really no way to capture the beauty of Dresden’s Altstadt. As far as I’m concerned, the whole area is an international treasure.
Welp! Since Dresden is yet another example of a German river town that takes care of its waterfront areas and leaves them open to the public, I figured it was about time to grab some wine, sit by the river, and watch the sunset. If teleporters are ever invented, I think I would use them to spend a lifetime of sunsets on German riverbanks. Wherever I lived, I could be back here in an instant. Sounds goooood to me!
As I sat on the river, I thought about how much time my sister has spent in Dresden, how much she loves the city. Finally, I could see why. All day, walking through Dresden’s old streets, I never really felt alone because it was like she was with me. I was visiting all the sites she suggested, and I knew she’d been there. I half expected her to pop out of the front door of one these buildings, or perhaps materialize out of my childhood memories of her travels here. In this sense, I was in Dresden not only to reunite with John Freeland’s bottle, but also with my badass sister.
Finally, I knew it was time to prepare for the next leg of my journey. I would make my way to Marseille to meet message in a bottle senders–but along the way I would stop in Berlin and Luxembourg.
As for Dresden, I left the river bank, and from the Altstadt, watched the low red sun illuminate the glass dome of a building…
I took one last look back at the sunset as I walked home, thinking–Goodnight, Dresden. Goodnight! I hope to see you again soon.
Can I tell you something really crazy before I end this post? Something crazy about how much I was thinking of my sister while in Dresden, and how I had come to Dresden to visit a message in a bottle I’d found at the Deutsches Hygiene Museum?
The day I left Dresden, July 7th 2015, was the day my sister found her first ever message in a bottle, on the same island where I found John Freeland’s bottle. Now, if that isn’t some awesome cosmic juju, I don’t know what is!