I went to Berlin recently to meet a friend for five days. Berlin is one of my favorite, favorite cities. Which is saying a lot…
I go back often, and somehow a visit isn’t quite complete unless I go to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. It’s a bombed church that has been left as a memorial to the war – any war –
Right next to it is a newer church. From the outside the chapel is unremarkable. Almost ugly, even. But when you enter it, the deep blue squares of light with their underlying pigments of color are glorious.
The colors seem to move and change as you watch: ruby red, emerald green and yellow. 
Europe is in the middle of a heat wave. Today is going to be the scorcher of the year – so far! I’m doing whatever I can to keep out of the heat. Looking at this photo of blues helps.
My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, Grounded, and The Trail Back Out.
The Trail Back Out was honored as 2021 IAN Book of the Year Award Short Story Collection Finalist for the Independent Author Network and with a Red Ribbon by the 2021 Wishing Shelf Book Awards of England. In addition, The Trail Back Out was an American Book Fest 2020 Best Book Award Finalist: Fiction Anthologies. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Broken In: A Novel in Stories was a semifinalist for the international 2020 Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award from Hidden River Arts, as well as a Finalist for Greece’s 2021 Eyelands Book Awards. Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award.
Click here for my author page to learn more about me and purchase my books.
I just made a visit back to the country of my birth. I had wondered what I’d find there, and quickly realized I’d had no idea about the changes. America has a new president and a new mood in the land. The violent protests at Charlottesville, Virginia occurred during my visit. I tried to follow the arguments for keeping the statue. Heritage. History. Cultural good.
I watched the debacle from the other side of the country. I’m no Southerner; what do I know? And then I met an old college buddy for dinner. He suggested a great Mexican place. It’s in Creswell, a little city just 8 miles outside of Eugene, Oregon. We parked in front of the restaurant, and as I stepped out a big pickup truck raced down the center of the street. Confederate flags flew defiantly from either window. The flags were huge, and meant to be noticed.
“Welcome to my country,” my buddy said. I’d like to say I promptly forgot about the sight, but I haven’t. Let’s be very clear here. The Confederate flag has nothing to do with the history of the Northwest. In the rest of the world, the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery and white supremacists. The noise of those big flapping flags was a loud slap across the face, a F-You to normal values and behaviors. Donald Trump and others argue that removing flags and statues = removing history.
I climbed on a plane a week later and returned to Germany. Now, if any country lives past, present and future history simultaneously, it is Germany. No busts of Hitler remain. Germans don’t want or need them. Instead, stumbling stones called Stolpersteine mark the last homes of victims murdered in the Holocaust.  Outdoor installations like Berlin’s East Side Gallery and the Topography of Terror, or Leipzig’s “Runde Ecke” Memorial Museum and the Stasi Bunker Museum are just a few of the national monuments and exhibits that grapple with the tasks of explaining why Nazi Germany came into being, and dictatorships and fascism in general.
America’s Declaration of Independence states, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….  As I ponder this truth, I exhale. I held my breath in distress during my visit. I’m told, and I read, that this is who we Americans were all along. Truculent. Armed and angry. Shouting. Unwilling to try to understand how people with views different from our own think, or feel. From this side of the Atlantic, history appears to be repeating itself. We’ve experienced this kind of thinking and acting before. It did not end well.
Many people feel Berlin is now the cultural heart of Europe. Creative impulses come from Germany’s capitol and spread from there. One of the quirkiest is the Buddy Bears.
The Buddy Bears creators were inspired by the cow parades in New York and Zurich. Eva and Klaus Herlitz of Berlin wanted to initiate a similar street art project. The bear is the icon of Berlin, and thus in 2001, the Herlitzes created the first bear with a sculptor named Roman Strobl.
Their projected expanded, and in 2002 it went international. They had a bear created for every country the UN acknowledges, all designed by artists native to each country. To date 148 2-meter high fiberglass United Buddy Bears have been painted. The bears have their arms raised as if they’re holding hands. (This can also be described as the laughing Buddha pose.)
The first display took place in a circle around Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. One and a half million people saw the exhibit, always free of charge. The circle symbolizes the Art of Tolerance. Since then, they’ve toured 5 continents and stood in an alphabetical circle in the centers of 17 host cities.*
In 2008 the Buddy Bears came to the Schlossplatz in downtown Stuttgart. (Read my post The Year the World Came to Party about how the 2006 Soccer World Cup transformed Germany. The Schlossplatz is where Uwe and I went each night with friends to watch the games on big screens.)
The United Buddy Bears send a message about peace, understanding, love and tolerance among the world’s nations, cultures and religions. Each bear is painted with images of the culture, history, landscape, economy, art and music of its country.
When new bears are commissioned, the older ones are auctioned off. All monies go to UNICEF and other childrens’ charities. To date (December 2013), over 2 million Euros have been raised for charities such as Eva Herlitz’s Buddy Bear Help!
Over 240 artists have been involved in the project, and more than 30 million visitors have seen the United Buddy Bears. A smaller circle of United Buddy Bears-The Minis (1 meter high) also tours.
The United Buddy Bears exhibitions are always opened by national and foreign dignitaries. They even have a Special Ambassador: the actress Dennenesch Zoudé. After he saw the bears in Berlin, actor Jackie Chan made sure the bears came to Hong Kong. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Sir Peter Ustinov saw them and he insisted that Iraq be represented.
There is one very special grey and white bear, a polar bear. He has the image of Albert Einstein and the following quote: ‘Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding’.
NOTE: * It’s fascinating to consider that United Buddy Bears change their order as they travel. The circle is always organized in the language of the host country. Buddy Bears may suddenly hold hands with distant or hostile neighbors…