France: It’s early morning and I’m riding a beat up trail bike up a sizable hill towards the Gorge Verdon in Haute Provence, telling myself, “Attaquez la montagne comme Lance.” This is my penance for last night’s feast at the Bastide de Moustiers, and my insurance on tonight’s indulgence. Each day I go out, I try to beat the previous day’s distance. My tactic is to get into a steady groove, think about anything but what I’m doing, and keep my head down, looking only at the tiny piece of road that’s in my tunnel vision.
On the way back down, I realize what I’ve been missing: huge wild forests, craggy foothills and alps, the piercing blues of Lac St. Croix, the crisp air warming in the morning sun, the smell of pine trees. They were all there as I was riding up the hill, but my mind was on other things.
Germany: I am in Berlin for a week, learning about remembrances of the Nazi past. Cecilia and I take the metro to the Bavarian quarter (Bayerische Viertel) and wander around what used to be called the “Jewish Switzerland.” In 1933, more than 16,000 Jews lived here quite prosperously. Today it’s hard to find Jews in this neighborhood, but it’s easy to find the memorials that recall their presence. If you look up, sooner or later you’ll see some of the eighty metal plaques pronouncing anti-Semitic regulations. They are mounted on poles and lampposts next to run-of-the-mill signage that you see in any neighborhood. Interspersed with signs for “bus stop,” “no entry,” “open 9-5,” and “free parking,” you can spot “At Bayerischer Platz, Jews may sit only on yellow park benches,” “Jewish veterinarians may not open practices,” “Jews are expelled from all choral groups,” and “Post Office officials married to Jews must retire.”
The eighty plaques are two-sided. On one side are simply designed pictograms that nostalgically recall glossy visuals in primary colors from favorite children’s books: a pair of golden braids, a cake on a doily, a bunch of cherries. On the other side are sparely written customs, edicts, and laws that document the gradual identification, segregation, humiliation, and disappearance of Jews, beginning in 1933. Though numerically dated, the texts are written in the present tense: “Jews are forbidden from buying newspapers and magazines”; “Jews are no longer allowed to have household pets.” When their designers, artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, first erected the plaques in 1993, local residents called up Jewish leaders and the police to report that neo-Nazis were installing fascist propaganda in their sedate neighborhood.
When I spoke with Renata Stih about the plaques, I made a common mistake by referring to them as an installation. She corrected me quickly and sharply. “They are not an installation. They are a memorial, a Denkmal.” It’s an important distinction. Stih and Schnock submitted the idea for the plaques to a competition for a Holocaust memorial to be located in the Bavarian quarter. It was a surprise to many when the Stih-Schnock proposal beat out ninety-five competitors. Government officials no doubt had in mind something somber and monumental in the plaza, a site for reflection and wreath-laying. The plaques are the opposite of a grand monument: they’re decentralized and ordinary, catch you by surprise, put you to intellectual work, are open-ended, and blur the past with the present.
It’s possible of course that you could walk by these plaques every day and not see them, or look up and see them, but treat them as just another visual stimulus. But if you look only down, you’ll eventually walk into a “stumbling stone.” This is the name given to plaques designed by Gunter Demnig in 1996. You can find them all over Berlin, cemented into the sidewalk, outside what used to be the homes of Jews. The stones provide information about the people who used to live there, when they left or were deported, and what happened to them. There’s no central authority that approves location and design. Local communities, schools, and churches decide to do something and create their own stones. You never know when you’ll stumble into one. They can stop you in your tracks.
California: It’s early afternoon, the tide is ebbing, a good time for my daily foray along the beach that runs from beneath our cabin at Big Lagoon down to Patrick’s Point. Along with the other penitents who make a pilgrimage to this wondrous place in Northern California, I move slowly at water’s edge, head down, scouring the millions of rocks for the rare black-green glint of jade that surfaces naturally polished from tributaries of the Klamath river and roiling Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, I hear a voice shouting from the nearby cliffs. I look up at the silhouette of a man with binoculars pointing out to sea and follow his direction in time to see whales spouting in plain view.