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Meaning Of Travel

SUMMER 2008 | The Present Past

SUMMER 2008 | The Present Past

My 1994 book tour for the 15th-anniversary edition of The Lure in Germany changed my feeling of immunity to history. I was on a seven-city expenses-paid summer jaunt. I was looking for book sales, newspaper interviews, fame -- and long romantic bike rides with stunning guys named Heinrich, Konrad, and Hans-Peter. Third stop was the lovely medieval castle city of Nuremberg, rebuilt after World War II to look as good as it had before. After my reading, a local optometrist with the odd English nickname of Needle said, ?If you?re free tomorrow, I?d like to show you something.? As it was a gay event, I assumed he was gay. But was this a pickup? It didn?t feel like one.

The next afternoon, I met Needle and we drove to the outskirts of town and he led me into the street-level door of an ordinary three-story building with, admittedly, a huge SS eagle outline on one wall, against which Turkish men played handball. Inside it was dark, and I thought, Well, maybe this was his way of getting me alone. He kept guiding me up and up until we reached the top level. In the dark he was silent; then he pushed me away slightly. Hey! What gave? Suddenly, he flung open tall double doors, and we stepped out into daylight.

I might have been romantically disappointed, but then I immediately realized where we were -- on the same balcony where Adolf Hitler had stood, one arm out, reviewing the infamous Nuremberg rallies. Needle had gone out of his way to show me this historically shameful place. Standing there, I could see, hear, and feel the Nazi past all around me. And I couldn?t forget that had Needle and I been in Nuremberg during those years, we?d have been forced to wear pink triangles like many other gays, herded into camps, forced into slave labor, and probably even killed. I was deeply creeped out. But I got over it.

A month later, when I was living in the Charlottenburg area of Berlin, my publisher asked me to come to his warehouse to sign copies of my reprint. When the city was divided by the Cold War, only the S trains had connected East and West Berlin, with fortress-like armed checkpoints. I?d been warned that I would have to get off a train, go upstairs, walk a block, then go back down to another train.

I had not been warned what I would see on that block in the midst of no-man?s-land: the mile-wide strip between the former East and West Berlin that was once guarded by soldiers with Uzis. What I saw was rubble, nothing larger than a package of cigarettes as far as the eye could see in every direction?except for two charred walls, an alley apart.

I arrived in a somber mood, signed the books, and explained to my editor what I?d seen. He found a prewar photo book and showed me the same corner with the two 10-foot-high charred ruins. One had been the Adlon Hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria of Berlin, the other the central railroad terminus. I had walked past Potsdamer Platz, the former Times Square of Berlin. The first traffic light in the world was put there. My country had bombed it to smithereens.

Thirteen years later, Potsdamer Platz is a glitzy, totally revived business center with huge new buildings and shops. It hums with activity. Berlin -- whether east, west, or the newly revived mitte (middle) -- is one of the great gay tourist spots. Many of Europe?s best gay bars, clubs, restaurants, saunas, parks, video stores, bookstores, and coffeehouses fill the new capital of Germany. I ended up living there for months that year, unable to get enough. But I?ll never forget what it looked like then?and how, unexpectedly, on two afternoon trips I was caught and held forever by tragedy.

Europe may have changed enormously for travelers; but we are linked to these and other places and peoples by deeply hidden, emotionally complicated threads. Those below-the-surface connections are what we need to keep in mind while traveling. Because out of them can develop true respect for others? lives, customs, and yes, history. And that?s more important than anything you can pack.

Felice Picano is the author of over a dozen books, and one of the founding members of the groundbreaking gay literary group Violet Quill Club.

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Felice Picano