I couldn’t tell you how or when or even why I came up with my original list of Places To See Before I Die. Lists aren’t my style, and I don’t remember making it, just that at some point after I started travelling it sprung, fully formed, from my head – much like Athena did from Zeus. I also couldn’t tell you why it only had three items on it. There are, roughly, a zillion places I want to see. Narrowing it down to three seems like some rather excessive culling.
I can, however, tell you that I have been fortunate enough to see all three. And they did not disappoint. They were all nearer to the start of my travel adventures, but they’re still stand out memories, far from overshadowed by subsequent journeys.
So just where were these three locations? Well, at number three on the list was …
The Brandenburg Gate
I have been fascinated by Germany for a long time. It was kind of a forbidden thing when I was growing up. My parents were born in the 1930s, and could remember the hardships caused by World War II, and hearing the news of atrocities on the radio. So I tread very softly around the subject, especially after my father once declared that, “All Germans wish that Hitler had won the war.” It was the only thing he ever said about it, but it was enough to encourage me to keep my mouth shut. My mother, meanwhile, shared her opinions more often, and while her prejudices might have been expressed more gently than my father’s, prejudices they were. I quickly learned to tread even softer around her than I did my father.
I suppose the taboo nature of the subject might have contributed to something German making the list. But even if it did, I’m certain it was an event far more positive that steered me specifically towards the Brandenburg Gate: the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I watched news broadcasts of fall, it was the images of the crowds at the Brandenburg Gate that stuck with me, much as the iconic photos of the gate obscured by the wall were emblematic of the years prior.
So when Ron and I visited Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate was stop one on day one. Because our time in the city was limited, we’d worked out which sites were closest to each other, the plan being to visit specific groupings together to cut down on travel time. But which grouping would be on which day was a real-time decision, and at the start of our first day, before we’d even had breakfast, Ron threw that decision to me. I don’t remember his exact words, but I believe, “It’s entirely up to you,” and “Don’t even think about asking me,” were part of what he said.
We took the U-bahn to Alexanderplatz Square, and walked through the biting cold along the Unter den Linden, until the Brandenburg Gate came into view, and I lost my mind just a little bit.
There’s something to be said about travelling during the off-season. It means fewer people and more time – an excellent combination when it comes to exploring. It can also lead to more personalized, memorable interactions. There was a busker at the Brandenburg Gate, dressed as a toy soldier, striking various poses with a life size officer figure. Now, I tend to be generous when it comes to street performers. No coins from me. Acts that I enjoy get bills only – bearing in mind that I’m Canadian and our smallest bill is $5 and I feel like a cheapskate if that’s all I’ve got on me – and when I dropped some money in his chest, and because Ron and I were his only audience, I got taken by the hand and brought into the act.
I still smile like a fool when I think of it. And memories of visiting the Brandenburg Gate make me feel full to the brim. It represents a lot – growing up and out from under my parents’ shadow, for example, no longer caring what they thought about my interests and learning to live for me. It also happened very near the start of my travel adventures, and it was proof that I was on the right path, reinforcing how much I love to see new things.
My parents had their own history, and in it, Germany figured very negatively. But the world is always changing. I witnessed a vivid example of that change, so my view of Germany is my own, and more tempered than theirs ever was. And on that day in Berlin, I got to live a part of my personal history. That, more than anything, was the real joy of visiting the Brandenburg Gate for me.
Second place on my list wasn’t nearly so fraught, possibly because its history is far, far older.
In classic, “If I knew then what I know now,” form, if I could change one thing in my past, it would be my choice of subject in post-secondary education. I was a good student who got high marks in school, and was expected to go to university. I didn’t want to, though. I hated school, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. For those and various other reasons, I ended up majoring in English Literature, even though I had no interest in it, and dropping out before I got my degree. If I had it to do over, I’d choose from a couple of other options, one of which is architecture.
I’ve always had an interest in, if not a lot of knowledge about, how buildings are put together. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned a lot. One of my first forays into learning was a simple lunchtime conversation with a co-worker, who was at university majoring in architecture at the time, about the Colosseum. He communicated so much in that half-hour. I was fascinated, and he patiently answered my many questions.
So I suppose it’s no surprise that the Colosseum made my list.
My bestest friend Kerry and I had decided to take a trip together, and when bandying about potential destinations, I admit, while I didn’t exactly push for Rome, I certainly did keep circling back to it. Not gonna lie. I was thrilled when Rome won out.
We rented an apartment, choosing one that was located central to most of things we wanted to see. It was an unexpected fringe benefit that every time we stepped out the front door and looked down the street, this was our view.
I was very open with Kerry about how I was likely to want to spend a lot of time at the Colosseum, and might get quite caught up in taking photos. I also told her to feel free to kick me in the butt if I was going overboard or she wanted to move on. We bought Roma Passes so we could skip the line, and set aside an entire morning for our visit, just to be safe. And far from kicking me in the butt, not only was Kerry patience personified, she essentially appointed herself my assistant. At that time, I only had one camera body and two lenses, and every time I wanted to switch between them, she was there to provide another set of hands and carry whatever lens I wasn’t using in her jacket pocket for easy access.
There was certainly a ‘wow’ factor to the Colsseum. (No surprise there.) Climbing to the main level and stepping out onto the platform dominated by this view is overwhelming, to say the least.
But even as I goggled at the grandeur, I remembered that conversation I had with my co-worker more than a decade earlier, and I began to look at the underlying structure. And there’s a lot to see. Because the Colosseum is so old, and mostly unrestored, the top layers are worn away, laying bare the underlying bones.
This led me to look even closer, finding tiny plants and grasses growing wherever they could find root.
Just goes to show, the grandest of spaces can hold many levels of wonders. You just have to open your eyes to them.
Which brings us to entry number one.
I’ve wanted to visit Greece ever since the Greek Mythology component in Grade 12 English class. It wasn’t my introduction to Greek Mythology, as a couple of my brothers have always had an interest in it, but it was when I realized how much I enjoy it. I used to drive my classmates nuts, because nobody could ever stump me when it came to details about the various gods and their stories. I even tried to convince Kerry to go to Greece during reading week in our first year of university, but it sadly didn’t happen.
When I was in my 30s and decided if I was going to travel, I’d better shit or get off the pot, Greece was where I decided to go. Ron and I went on a cruise, because we were curious as to whether or not we’d enjoy that type of travel. Turns out we didn’t – vehemently. There’s no fun in being trapped in your hotel every night.
The daily stops, however, were wonderful, especially our day in Athens, when we visited the Parthenon. Of those gods I had memorized so many facts about, Athena was my favourite. True, I’m not fond of her being the goddess of war, but many of her other attributes, such as wisdom, courage, law, justice, strength, and art are all things that are important to me. (On a complete and total tangent, I once managed an art store called Athena.) So I was super excited to see the Parthenon, the most well-known of the temples dedicated to her.
We’d hired a driver to take us to the city’s main sites. When he dropped us at the base of the Acropolis to begin our climb to the temple, he told us that most people spend about 45 minutes there. At around 90 minutes in, Ron reminded me we had a driver waiting for us, to which I said, “That’s what we’re paying him for,” and continued exploring.
The Parthenon was undergoing extensive restoration work while we were there. There was a lot of scaffolding, and access was limited. Many people have commented on how disappointed I must have been, but I disagree. There was nothing disappointing about it. I could still stand near the base of the temple itself and feel tiny, which is the effect places of worship are meant to have. Plus I could get close enough to study the structure of the columns, and marvel at both the skill and artistry it took to make them, along with a close-up view of the work being done and why it was needed.
If we don’t maintain these sites, we’ll lose them forever, and I think complaining about it happening while I’m there is both selfish and self-sabotaging. I put a great deal of money and emotional investment into this trip, after all, so I owed it to myself to make the best of it. I like to think that choice – to be happy for the experience, even if it’s not in the exact form I’d envisioned – captures a little bit of Athena’s spirit, showing wisdom in the shadow of a temple built in her honour.