“ . . . everything was thrilling because nothing was the same . . . “
There is a phenomenon common to us all known as psychological time. I mean that our perception of time passing is a function of what we are experiencing. That time passes more quickly when we are having fun and more slowly when we are bored or watching the clock is a truism. The longest fifteen minutes of my day occurs when I’m running on the treadmill at the gym.
Studies show that when we step out of our daily routines and do new and different things our hours and days seem to lengthen and that they pass more quickly when our routine activities resume. At home, although I may be doing many things in the course of my day, they tend to be the same things, and the days, weeks, and even months seem to pass very rapidly, too rapidly for someone as conscious of finite time as I’ve become. I have the opposite reaction when I travel. At those times, days seem to pass much more slowly; a week on the road can seem a month long because I’m seeing different sights, hearing different speech, and thinking different thoughts.
This phenomenon occurred to both Kay and me on a recent trip to Germany. Although our time away from home lasted a mere eight days, it seemed much longer.
One afternoon we left Istanbul and three hours later we were in Frankfurt where our friends Conny and Jocki met us and took us to their home in the nearby town of Langenhain. For the next two days, in the company of our friends, it was one neat experience after another.
We spent our first full day walking in Frankfurt, along the Main River and through the district known as Sachsenhausen with its appetizing food shops and appealing design stores.
We climbed a spiral staircase to a mezzanine floor above men making keys and shoes and found ourselves in a museum where the only artifacts were hammers, hundreds of hammers of every sort, size, and description.
Minutes later, out on the street again, we passed a restaurant where one evening eighteen years before I had dined family style with Conny (a client before she was a friend) on a huge platter of pork — ribs, sausages, and steaks — and glass after glass of sour apple wine, a Hessen specialty. In a day of impressions, we lingered nowhere, but after hours of walking, we felt we had seen a great deal that was different and interesting. The perfect weather only enhanced our pleasure.
Trains! I can’t overly emphasize how much we prefer train travel to nearly every other kind. Five hours comfortably seated on a clean, fast European train with a good book is our idea of luxury. And five hours is how long it took us to go from Frankfurt to the city of Dresden, near Germany’s eastern border with the Czech Republic.
For hundreds of years, Dresden was one of Europe’s loveliest cities; ‘Florence on the Elbe” it was known as in the 18th century. The artist Bernardo Bellotto, better known as Canaletto, spent years working there and his scrupulously drafted paintings of the city’s Baroque public spaces filled with animated life testify to Dresden’s glory years.
The aerial bombing and the ensuing firestorm that engulfed Old Dresden near the end of WW II continue to be highly controversial. Were these strategic actions by the British and American Allies, and if so, why were the outlying factories engaged in the German war effort not targeted? Or was this wanton destruction of one of Old Europe’s most charming and beautiful cities an act of terror designed to crush what was left of German morale? Of Dresden’s population, 25,000 civilians lost their lives between the 13th and 15th of February 1945. Accounts of those who survived describe a scene worse than the “blackest nightmare.”
Today, 67 years after the destruction, Dresden is once again a beautiful city. The achievement of reconstructing Dresden’s principal Baroque landmarks is simply amazing. The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), one of Dresden’s most beloved symbols, and the Semperoper, the city’s opera house, had been completely obliterated during the attack.
Now, they are rebuilt as spitting images of the originals. The towering altar inside the church, reassembled from 2,000 fragments, is a masterpiece of Baroque exuberance. We had more than enough time to study it during a long organ concert when it was the principal visual attraction.
Until 1918 Dresden was home to the Kings of Saxony. It probably reached its cultural peak in the early 18th century when its rulers were known as Electors because they participated in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. The greatest of these was Agustus the Strong (1670 – 1733), a cosmopolitan and an avid collector of art and unique cultural objects. That Agustus was extraordinarily wealthy is evidenced by the extent and quality of what he collected: old-master paintings; porcelain from China, Japan and nearby Meissen; and exquisite objects made from amber, gold, silver, ivory, wood, copper, and bronze. All of these are on display in the two Green Vaults (Grünes Gewölbe) of the Residenzschloss and in the galleries of the nearby palace known as the Zwinger, which houses the fantastic porcelain collections and the Old Masters Gallery whose treasures include Sandro Botticelli’s Mary with the Christ-Child and John the Baptist, Pinturicchio of Sienna’s Portrait of a Boy, Bernardo Strozzi’s Girl with a Viola da Gamba, Andrea Mantegna’s Holy Family, and many others including two lovely Vermeers. The pride of the collection is Raphael’s Sistine Madonna for which Agustus at the time paid a king’s ransom. As he pushed his throne aside, he is reputed to have said, “Make way for Raphael!” Kay and I couldn’t get enough of this gallery. We went to it on two successive days, and if we had stayed longer, would have returned again.
This was Kay’s and my first visit to Dresden but not to other parts of Germany. For travelers like us the country has endless attractions. There is much natural beauty, interesting architecture, some great cities, a deep tradition of high-culture, and delicious food. It’s an easy country to visit because it is organized logically and works the way it is designed. ‘Efficiency’ is a German attribute known the world over, and following is an instance of how this benefited us in Dresden.
Getting off a city tram at the end of an afternoon in a state of fatigue, I left behind a tote bag containing a favorite scarf of Kay’s and an art book I had only just bought at a museum gift shop. Losing one’s possessions is probably every traveler’s nightmare since recovering them in the short time available is usually not possible. We didn’t realize our loss until later in the evening when I went to have a look at the book I had bought. After some moments of recrimination, we accepted the situation philosophically and went to sleep.
At the front desk the next morning, I explained our problem. The man I spoke to questioned me methodically: What tramline had it been and between which stops? What did the bag look like, and what were its contents? He then called a certain number and spoke to someone. Hanging up, he told me to wait for an answer. Fifteen minutes later the phone rang in our room, and I was told that the bag would be brought to the hotel. Not long after that, while we were at breakfast, a man from the tram company came and presented us with our lost bag. Frankly, we were both amazed.
Following our brief Dresden visit, we returned to Frankfort for a final day on the town with Conny and Jocki. The loveliest campus of the large Johann Wolfgang Goethe University is located in and around what was once the IG-Farbernhaus, headquarters of the chemical company that, besides its more benign products, once manufactured the notorious Zyklon-B, the poisonous gas used by the Nazis to implement the Final Solution. Architecturally, it is a striking building whose current use gives no hint of its sinister past. We spent a good amount of time there, having lunch on a sunny lawn while watching the university students relax among the greenery.
The following day, after one more of Jocki’s excellent breakfasts, our friends drove us to the airport, and we were homeward bound. We had had an excellent time, renewing an old friendship in the context of a satisfying cultural experience. It happened all in a week’s time, a week that went on and on.