All Roads Lead to A8

Several years ago, I sat in an incredibly small tin can with my sister, brother-in-law, and Husband as we road tripped our way back to my sister's house in southern Germany from Prague. Our hair was soaked and skin still damp from the rainstorm we ran through after taking our last gulp of the spectacular city that morning. We all were reticent to leave, but we stuffed ourselves in the car anyway. The journey back was to be a long, seven hour drive.

I like the Autobahn. My experiences have been pleasant enough. Efficient. Rules that make sense. A largely helpful feat of engineering. Not that I spent that much time on or thinking about the Autobahn. At least, I hadn't until I found myself staring at an endless sea of brake lights while flirting with a treacherously low gas gauge and a dangerously full bladder. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

We set an odd tone to our trip back to Germany from the start. Our first order of business was a tour through The Old Jewish Cemetery. The light drizzle that began as we started our tour was a fitting mood setter as we were solemnly led through the multi-layered graveyard that contains over 100,000 bodies and sits several yards higher than the surrounding streets. The history of this location is rich, albeit grim, and I am glad we made time for it. Finishing our tour with a flourish, the skies opened up and unleashed all sorts of fitting emotion as we walked to the car. Which was not close. It was well on the other side of Old Town Square parked at the mall, for those of you familiar with Prague. It was a long, very wet, walk. Which leaves us where I started - cold, wet, and cramped in a very small car.

But we weren't done with the Czech Republic. No sir. We ventured further east to the Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the Bone Castle. That's right. We left a cemetery in the morning to visit a castle made of about 40,000 human bodies in the afternoon. A very macabre ending to our trip. The most morbid spectacle being the chandelier that contains at least one of every bone on the human body.  As we waved goodbye to the two backpackers wearing shirts for pants and trash bags for shoes, we thought we were leaving the weird behind. 

 Schwarzenberg family coat-of-arms made of bones and displayed in Sedlec Ossuary.

Schwarzenberg family coat-of-arms made of bones and displayed in Sedlec Ossuary.

We were not.

Well, maybe we left behind that kind of weird, but we weren't done with this chapter of the trip. Trouble started as we were cruising along through the German countryside when we suddenly realized the gas warning light was on. We had no idea how long it had been flashing and really no idea how long we might have until we ran out of gas. Enter the most unhelpful GPS lady voice ever. Okay, maybe not most unhelpful as she did eventually get us to a place where we could, in fact, buy gasoline. But she took us to the most remote, one pump shop miles and miles from our road home - the A8. The village was storybook - if that story was written by M. Night Shyamalan. When we inquired with the attendant about the bathroom situation, we were graciously led to what was clearly their family bathroom. Toothbrushes on the sink and all. These people were incredibly kind - my unexploded bladder is evidence. Still, the vibe felt totally weird to us and we were people that voluntarily spent part of the day in a building with 40,000 dead bodies. The detour set us back in our journey, but only an hour or so. It wasn't so bad.

Except when we finally returned to A8, things were not at all flowing well. By not flowing well, I mean headlights to bumper, door to door, stopped traffic. Things were creeping along, occasionally punctuated with long periods at a dead stop. In a moment of creative problem solving, we opted to turn on the "avoid highways" option on the Garmin. Sure, it may take longer to get home traveling through villages, but at least we'll be moving and perhaps see something interesting. We wound our way through several villages, along remote country roads, until we suddenly saw a sign directing us to A8. Wonderful, we thought. Maybe we've driven beyond whatever is causing the mess. Our elation was short-lived. Traffic was still merely creeping along. And then the worst thing dawned on us. We were merging back on to A8 several exits before the one we left. We actually went backwards.

We tried again thinking surely we couldn't make such a terrible mistake a second time. Again, we ended up worse off than we were when we started. This time, we opted to just get off the road. We took the first exit off the A8 and this time asked the Garmin God for food. She delivered, but only in the most ironic sort of ways. In theory, what the restaurant brought us was edible. In their defense, it's likely we ordered poorly. We clearly mistranslated several key descriptors. I won't go into great detail. Suffice it to say the image of mushroom "gravy" dripping down the side of a crepe did not stir any appetite. Not that gravy and not the way it slid like sewage. We returned to the car which was happily resting its worn wheels in a parking garage, as night fell.

But the parking garage didn't want to let the car go. We tried entering our ticket every which way. We tried the help button. We even contemplated an attempt to lift the tiny tin can car over the barrier. When we did eventually make our way out of the garage thanks to a somewhat sleepy attendant, we were anxious to find our way back to A8. Which took longer than expected. Primarily because of one tiny little incident on this trip of many incidents. While laughing about the "food" from dinner, one particular description engaged my sister's gag reflex. Which engaged Husband's. And, in turn, Brother-in-Law's. The latter was driving, but managed to pull the car over before all three leaped out, leaving me alone in the car to endure the sound of their retching.

Yeah. It was that bad.

Eventually, we wandered weary into my sister's home, the journey officially concluded. It was the perfectly imperfect journey with the difficult moments providing unforgettable texture - not unlike life. Despite all that occurred on the last day, this trip still remains one of my favorite ever taken. Some of that is the amazing location. Some is the company I kept. Some is the story.

The story maybe most of all. At the end of everything, isn't that what life is? A string of stories describing our experiences. The stories carry on long after we're gone, in some cases. There have been a lot of stories on the news lately that show some of the ugliest sides of humanity. Shocking, disturbing, heartbreaking. Violence and ignorance. Is this the story we want history to tell about our time on this earth?

 Lennon Wall, Prague, April 2011

Lennon Wall, Prague, April 2011

It's easy to be a couch captain, judging the actions of others, categorizing strangers, pointing fingers of blame for all the injustice we see. It's easy to create labels, to treat every situation as if the answer is so simple. It's easy to scream impossible solutions for impossible problems on the interwebs as if we understand the nuances of every situation despite being far removed. It's easy to misunderstand when we've never walked in the shoes of the victims, the perpetrators, the innocent, or the guilty. I have no idea how to stop my friends from being in fear simply because of the color of their skin or uniform on their back. I have no idea who to cast my vote for when every election season seems to present even more imperfect candidates. I have no idea how to fix any of these issues or countless others. What I do know is that responding with hate or doing nothing is not the answer.

Our Prague trip was fraught with challenges and difficult moments. Yet, as a whole, it was a thing of beauty. As a society, we're on a journey that feels as if ugly moments are at every turn. It seems as if no matter what we do we end up right where we started or fear we've gone back in time. I don't know how to fix the problems in this world, but I can make an effort not to be part of them. I can treat everyone with respect, regardless of race, beliefs, uniform, or whether I agree with their opinions. I can challenge myself to better understand different perspectives and find areas of compromise. I can judge less and listen more. I can be strong enough to peacefully agree to disagree. I can use language to express myself without being intentionally hurtful or incendiary. I can be a kind person.

I can hold out hope that although this world is on a trip full of difficult moments and challenges, but the beauty of the people will shine through in the story.