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My Orcas Island

3 Dec

Ok, so this is where I grew up. Can you understand my obsession?

The video is only 2 and a half minutes long. What better way to spend two minutes?!

Chiseling Down the Wall – My Berlin Wall Memories

4 Nov

The first time I saw the Berlin Wall was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. We had just moved to West Berlin because my Dad, who had been laid off from Pan American World Airways for 14 years, had unexpectedly been recalled…and sent to Berlin.

I remember when we got the news that we’d be moving. We’d known the assignment was to come through that day, so I’d made Mom promise to leave a message for me at school telling me where we’d be moving to. To my surprise, in the middle of algebra class, my teacher handed me a note. It read simply, “Berlin”.

Suddenly the world opened up for me. Visions of bratwurst, dirndls and Cold War spy movies filled my mind.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

By the time we’d moved into our apartment in the Dahlem district of Berlin, registered me for school in the US Department of Defense-run Berlin American High School, and learned to avert my eyes when walking through city parks where there were clothing-optional volleyball games in progress, I felt like I’d aged about a million years from that day in algebra class. West Berlin was not what I had expected.

It was better.

With the exception, of course, that every aspect of life was controlled by The Wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

Living in the city, going about my daily life, I didn’t give the wall much thought. But whenever a sports team or, in my case, the Drama Fest team, had to go to another West German city for a competition, we had to climb aboard the Duty Train (the nightly military train that took soldiers and their families across East Germany in the dark) with the window shades pulled, so that no Westerners could see the glory that was the DDR, the Deutsches Democratic Republic of Germany.

It was impossible for civilians to ride this train, except in the case of students like myself, so I’d come with an armload of special papers while my military-dependent friends could pretty much just hop onboard. The Duty Train was really the only way out of the city apart from flying. There were day passes available to military dependents to enter East Berlin, and as civilians we could enter the East through Checkpoint Charlie, but there were many rules and curfews required if you did so.

One of the rules was that you weren’t allowed to take any paper money – East Marks – back into West Germany. My uncle (when he and my aunt visited us one Christmas and we all went into the East) chose to be stubborn rather than spending his leftover marks. He opened an East German bank account with his ten marks…the equivalent of less than five dollars. I suppose the account still exists, though it’s more likely that the bank itself dissolved with the fall of the wall.

The gate that December.  Note the Soviet flag still flying.

The gate that December. Note the Soviet flag still flying.

Another rule about crossing into East Berlin was that civilians couldn’t drive their cars. This meant that whenever we wanted to go there – which was only twice for me – we were required to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and be scrutinized by the East German guards.

This wasn’t too big of a deal, but it took awhile, depending on whether the guards felt like opening the window or not, and on how long the lines were. Both times I visited they glanced at my passport and waved me through. Both times my mother, however, was scrutinized. She must have looked like she’d be easily intimidated. She would stand there, trying to look cross and aloof, but probably the shaking of her hand as she handed over her passport gave her away. I actually wanted to be scrutinized. I thought it would be fun. But no, they picked on Mom instead.

I disliked visiting the East. Oh, it was interesting seeing Alexander Platz and visiting the Russian-run department store, but it was a gloomy place, a gray place. The above-ground subway, the S-Bahn, gave a shrill whistle at every stop which always gave me a headache, and seeing the windows of the houses that faced the wall literally boarded up and seeing the guards with their guns patrolling no-man’s land and their guard towers and their utter disdain for us westerners was a little off-putting.

Of course, never far from one’s mind when visiting East Berlin, was the fact that you could leave…and every single person you saw around you could not. Well, they could go into the rest of East Germany, but they certainly couldn’t go into the west.

(By the way, if you ever get to Berlin today, the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) is a must-see. It tells the story – and often preserves the means – of the many escapes and escape attempts that were made in the 27-year existence of the wall. There is little more humbling in life than to realize how you’ve taken your freedom for granted.)

I remember one time going to a fair and riding a Ferris Wheel that was set up right alongside the wall. Every time we reached the apex of the wheel ride we could see over the wall and into the streets and lives of the East Germans on the other side. I felt like a bird must feel. Only birds have the right to fly anywhere they choose. Even they had more freedom than the East Germans.

A hole in the wall...with the "Pope's Revenge" in the background.

A hole in the wall…with the “Pope’s Revenge” in the background.

I visited the wall several times while in my two years in Berlin. Usually we’d take the U-Bahn, the underground, to the Reichstag (now the Bundestag) and get out there, walking the short way to the Brandenburg Gate. My mother and I did that when President Reagan came to speak at the wall, in the spring of 1987. We had signed up for tickets, which we clutched, along with our passports and civilian ID cards, as we joined the line which snaked back and forth for row upon row.

There were three checkpoints along the way, all manned by West German guards. I handed my pile of documents to the first. He glanced down, prepared to wave me forward, then gave a snort. A snort which could only be called a laugh.

He looked up at me. “Gretchen?” He asked.

I nodded, confused.

Then, with another laugh, he handed me my papers and waved me on.

I shuffled forward, uncertain and a little perplexed.

At the next checkpoint, it happened again.

Papers handed over, name read, guard guffawed. Only this time he called over his friends to add a little humor to their day as well. “Gretchen!” he said, lending his German pronunciation to my name. “Ya, ha ha!” his friends agreed.

As I approached the third and final checkpoint, Mom and I prepared ourselves for the laugh fest.

I handed my documents over and, sure enough, the guard smiled and chuckled.

“It’s my name, right?” I asked. “Mein namen?”

“Ya,” the guard replied. “Das ist ein kinder namen.”*

A name for children.

Fine. Whatever. Give me my passport, please.

And then, after taking our place in the standing crowd and seeing East German guards staring down at us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate with rifles slung over their shoulders, the president appeared. When I looked back up, the soldiers were gone.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” President Reagan said. And I laughed a little, inside, at the absurdity of the thought.

Turns out I was the who was absurd. And I’m so glad.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

I was in college back in the States on November 9, 1989 – 25 years ago this month – so I wasn’t there when the wall actually opened up, but I went back several weeks later for Christmas. My parents and my cousin Eleanor (who was visiting for Christmas) and I took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, bringing a hammer and chisel with us to claim our small piece of history. The crowds had thinned greatly from the initial days after the opening of the wall, but there were several people there, chiseling and hammering and swigging from bottles of wine.

We approached a large hole in the wall and gazed through into the former No-Man’s Land, the place of such loathing and horror in the past. An East German guard, still patrolling but unarmed, walked up on his side of the wall and smiled at us. He was still wearing his uniform, complete with Russian-style fur hat with the ear flaps folded up.

In broken German, Eleanor struck up a conversation with him and he replied amiably, smiling all the while. We were making friends with a man who, only weeks ago, would have had orders to shoot us.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

I went back to Berlin a few years ago, walked through the Brandenburg Gate, saw the renamed Reichstag and the US Embassy abutting the Gate itself, stayed in a Hilton hotel in the former East Berlin. Such decadence in the city that had been so dreary!

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012.  The US Embassy is the building to the left.

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012. The US Embassy is the building to the left.

Every moment of my time there was surreal. It was beyond fantastic to see the city I had come to love as it was meant to be. A unified whole.

PS – I know that reunification wasn’t all easy, what with broken Trabants on the autobahn and sales of pornography skyrocketing (blue jeans and bananas rounded out the top three most-bought items by the East Germans). But still, reunification brought about the ultimate end of World War II (the end of the Allied Occupation in the city) and the end of Germany’s split personality, so to speak. And while it might not have been easy, it was, in the end, Sehr Gut.

*My apologies if my German is incorrect!

I Keep Forgetting!

30 Apr

Okay, so I keep forgetting to post the link to my London story! I can’t post the actual story on here as it is owned by the Daily Globe.

So here you go: http://www.dglobe.com/content/london-calling-couple-spend-whirlwind-five-days-touring-city.

I hope you enjoy the read!

– Gretchen
white tower

I’m Alive!

1 Apr
The houses of parliament and Big Ben from across the Thames as we ate dinner.

The houses of parliament and Big Ben from across the Thames as we ate dinner.

Atop the London Eye - a sort of Ferris Wheel - looking down on the Thames.

Atop the London Eye – a sort of Ferris Wheel – looking down on the Thames.

I may be alive but I am not entirely awake, alert or enthusiastic. That’s what a whirlwind 5 days in London will do to you.

But, while I may not be terribly alert yet, I am definitely basking in the remembered glory of our trip. We had a marvelous time. Spent five hours in the Tower of London, a couple hours in Westminster Abbey, several hours in the British Museum and the National Gallery, one hour in a pod of the London Eye, and countless hours on the underground.

But that’s not all! We attended an Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral (amazing) and visited Paddington Station because Paddington Bear is a favorite in our family. We watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and ate at pubs and did a little shopping. We saw Wicked, survived crossing London Bridge, and I even got to relax and read a book for a little while in St. James’s Park with the pelicans.

The many birds of St. James's Park.

The many birds of St. James’s Park.

I will be writing about the whole trip for the newspaper so I will leave the main storytelling until then but I wanted to let you know I’m still around and that more will be forthcoming in a couple of weeks!

For now, a photo or two – albeit not fabulous ones – and an assurance that I am, indeed, alive.

PS – please read this entire post with a British accent. It will make things so much more interesting.

Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge.

Fish and Chips - of course!  Along with mushy peas.  My husband had Chicken Masala.

Fish and Chips – of course! Along with mushy peas. My husband had Chicken Masala.

A Long Post About A Secret Island

29 Oct
En route to the island.  A friendly face.

En route to the island. A friendly face.

This summer, for the first time ever in my life, I visited an island in Washington State which I had never before had the opportunity to visit. Now don’t get me wrong, there a many islands in the San Juan archipelago that I have not been to – after all, there are 172 named islands and a person without a boat of their own can’t really be blame for only visiting a handful of them.

Do you see what I see?  Not a great photo, but still cool to see.  Even in the era of a mere 400 pairs of Bald Eagles in the entire USA, the San Juans had a good percentage of those eagles.  We'd see them often from our house.

Do you see what I see? Not a great photo, but still cool to see. Even in the era of a mere 400 pairs of Bald Eagles in the entire USA, the San Juans had a good percentage of those eagles. We’d see them often from our house.

I’ve been to all of the major ones which have ferry service: Orcas (of course I put that one first), San Juan Island, Shaw and Lopez. Oh, wait. I might not have been to Shaw, come to think of it, I can’t remember for sure. I know I was on Lopez a few times as a kid with the library kid’s program doing puppet shows over at their library, and I’ve been to San Juan several times as well. Beyond that I’ve been to Sucia, Matia, and Jones, all of which are entirely owned by the Washington State Parks. Oh, and I’ve been to Indian Island (formerly known as Jap Island – they went from one politically incorrect name to another). Out of 172, that’s not very many.

Boo and her cousin, checking out the beach.

Boo and her cousin, checking out the beach.

Well, now I can add another island to that list. Only I can’t name it for you. Why, you ask?

Because the inhabitants don’t want to be known.

This island has no ferry service. You can only get there by plane or small boat. Or big boat with a smaller boat thrown off the side.  It has no electricity, though many people do have generators and/or solar panels. It has no stores. No paved roads. No internet cables, phone lines, annoying telephone poles that mess up one’s view. Some of the people do have cell phones and wireless internet.

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The island does have a public school with 8 students, which I THINK only goes up through 8th grade. Most families seem to either move off the island when their kids are in high school or send them to live with friends or family elsewhere. Either that or they send them to boarding schools. The school is under the overview of the Orcas school district, and back when I was a student on Orcas students on this mysterious island used to send their kids to Orcas every day for school, though no one seems to do that anymore. They have a one room schoolhouse with a nice library and a separate computer building that the locals can pay a monthly fee to use.

A not great photo of the schoolhouse.  It's hard to take photos from the back of a moving truck - even if it is moving slowly!

A not great photo of the schoolhouse. It’s hard to take photos from the back of a moving truck – even if it is moving slowly!

There is an airstrip on the island and a post office though the mail boat only comes three days a week. There are several unmanned farmer’s stands, working on the honor system. And the farms sell their wares at farmer’s markets on other islands. They have many social gatherings – I think some sort of craft fair had been going on when we were there. I know they have picnics and musical gatherings and poetry readings – lovely, “old-fashioned” stuff like that. (I wish I had more opportunities to do things like that!)

My son found a message in a bottle within minutes of arriving on the beach.  No, we can't show you the note because it would give away the name of the island!  But it was a really cool discovery!

My son found a message in a bottle within minutes of arriving on the beach. No, we can’t show you the note because it would give away the name of the island! But it was a really cool discovery!

They do have a self-governing system. Two islanders are part-time county road workers and they take care of the few roads that are considered county roads. There are no road signs, in fact, no signs whatsoever. There is a public county dock that anyone on the island can use. You can’t tie your boat up to it but you can load and unload there and then you have to anchor out or, like the residents, have your own buoy that is safely anchored. There is only one other dock on the island and it’s privately owned. No more are allowed by the islands own self-governing system. Here’s another interesting fact: only 1 indoor toilet is allowed per household, though you may have as many outhouses as you may like! This may not be strictly followed, but it’s the official law.

The necessary outhouse.

The necessary outhouse.

The private dock.  It's taken in in the fall and not put back out until late spring.

The private dock. It’s taken in in the fall and not put back out until late spring.

Also on the rule books is that there is to be no sharing of your own utilities with the neighbors, so if you own solar panels or a generator, it’s yours alone. My insider says that he knows this rule is broken, but for whatever reason, it’s the official stand. The police will visit the island, but only if they have to, which is not very often. An ambulance of sorts is manned by islanders who have been trained and you can buy Med-flight memberships for absolute emergencies. One very cool thing about that is that the islanders will pay for a family to be members if they can’t afford it. There is a tanker truck to haul water for big fires and there are three trailers with water to hook-up to which are stationed around the island at various points.

See the solar panels?

See the solar panels?

If residents have propane heaters, refrigerators, hot water heaters, or stoves, they have to haul their own gas and propane in their boat or have the island’s water taxi pick it up for them for a nominal fee. The mail delivery guy who lives on the island will also pick up groceries or pharmacy supplies or hardware store stuff for residents.

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This island is about 3600 acres. It has about 100 permanent (year-round) residents and about quite a few more houses that are used only seasonally. The population actually doubles in the summer, especially on the weekends. It has one main road which kinda loops around but doesn’t even cover the entire island. It is navigable at speeds not to exceed about 10mph. Not because they like to make up rules like that but because to go any faster is to risk life and limb and gas tank. The roads are full of potholes and surprising bumps, twists and turns and gorgeous views.

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The island vehicles are, for fairly obvious reasons, old beaters. If you’re going to ship a car or truck over, you’re not going to ever want to do it again. Many of the car’s doors have long-since disappeared and one head light is quite the norm. My insider borrowed a truck one night years back, and had to use a flashlight after dark – they started out with a headlight and then it shorted out. Oh, and by the way, the road is one lane only.

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This means that you can drive along it, your windows rolled down on your old beater truck, and literally grab a hold of the vegetation along the road if you so desire. The evergreens, salal bushes, Scotch Broom, Oregon Grape, ferns, daisies, blackberries and salmonberries are close enough to pick a bouquet. And you’re going slowly enough to maybe even fill your bucket for a blackberry cobbler!

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Of course all this one-lane, super-slow driving means that if you run into another car coming your way you – or he – have to back up through said twists and turns and bumps and holes until you can find a place in the road where you can pull off. There are quite a few turn-offs, but still, one needs to be good at backing…which I am not.

Let’s just say that if I was driving there I’d most likely be dead pretty quick.

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Most people, for obvious reasons, get around on bicycles. Which is another reason to drive slowly. There also may be chickens in the road. Or bunnies. Or goats. But there will never be deer in the road, as there are none on the island, nor are there raccoons, squirrels, mice, opossums or skunks. There are rats, though. Plenty of those. And there are owls. Lots of them. They must eat the rats. And the frogs.

Most of the residents of this island are there because they want to get away. To do their own thing. To live a sustainable lifestyle and simplify their lives. Some are there just because their anti-social. Some want to have a get-away which truly is away from everything. Those ones often are the seasonal folks who spend their winters in Seattle or elsewhere, earning the money they need to keep up their get-away.

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There are no tourists. None. Tourists are not welcome. They can’t be kept off legally, from the county road, anyway, but they sure are not smiled upon. This is not a place for a casual visit. This is a lifestyle.

Lest you think that the beach is full of people, let me hasten to assure you that this is all our crowd.  the beach was completely empty.

Lest you think that the beach is full of people, let me hasten to assure you that this is all our crowd. the beach was completely empty.

Turns out, however, that if you have an “in”…you can take a peek. So I did. With someone I know well and who, after going there for several years, finally invited me to visit. I say “finally” without bitterness! The home they have there is not winterized and so they can only be there for a few months out of the year and even then only on the weekends, due to the annoyances of real life. Even if they could be there and stay warm with their woodstove, just getting there risks your life in the swells and winds of a Puget Sound winter. There was a return trip, a year or two ago, during which this person truly wasn’t sure h’d make it. When he did, it was time to put the boat up for the winter. No more trips back and forth. No more tempting fate.

Imagine – in weather like that – what it’s like to be a permanent resident of the island! The kids who travel daily across the water for high school have to have a place to stay on the other island where they go to school. Either that or they’re homeschooled. The residents have to have enough food to make it through storms that can last for days and bad weather that lasts for weeks. They have to plan ahead, can their veggies, pray for enough protein to come their way. This is not an easy life. But it is the life they have chosen. And, by golly, they want to be left alone to do it on their own.

And so I will not name the island. But how could I resist telling you about it?!

By the way, if you know the name of the island I’m writing about…please keep it to yourself. Thank you.

PS – Thanks to my secret source for much of the information on this post!!

Can you tell what this is?  It's an ancient buoy - very cool!

Can you tell what this is? It’s an ancient buoy – very cool!

Ten points if you know what these are.  They're sitting on the buoy. If you compare the two photos you can see how amazingly huge they are.  Never have I seen such big barnacles in my life!

Ten points if you know what these are. They’re sitting on the buoy. If you compare the two photos you can see how amazingly huge they are. Never have I seen such big barnacles in my life!

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My Summer, in Photos…

8 Oct

Ok, so I still have many photos from both Orcas Island as well as from Duluth, Minnesota to post, but today you’re getting more of a grab bag. A few pictures from around home. A few from a weekend spent swimming with the fishes in Rochester, MN. A few that show the season. Enjoy!

Sunset from our back yard.

Sunset from our back yard.

We're still burning piles of dead trees from the ice storm in April.  It's been a huge process.

We’re still burning piles of dead trees from the ice storm in April. It’s been a huge process.

Two sisters enjoying the rain.

Two sisters enjoying the rain.

There was a barn fire not too far from us.  We stood in our yard and took a few photos.

There was a barn fire not too far from us. We stood in our yard and took a few photos.

The fire trucks were rushing past our house.

The fire trucks were rushing past our house.

Fun in the sun.

Fun in the sun.

I've spent many an evening sorting through old Martha Stewart magazines, dating from 1997.  Yes, I literally hurt my back moving the things.

I’ve spent many an evening sorting through old Martha Stewart magazines, dating from 1997. Yes, I literally hurt my back moving the things.

My son's day - if not his year - was made in the ferry line on the 4th of July when we saw this Delorean pull to a stop two lanes over from us.  Everyone and their dog started taking photos.  The lovely couple had come from a 4th of July parade where they show the car, all decked out like in Back to the Future.  My son got to sit in it and even pull the door closed.  He was in heaven.

My son’s day – if not his year – was made in the ferry line on the 4th of July when we saw this Delorean pull to a stop two lanes over from us. Everyone and their dog started taking photos. The lovely couple had come from a 4th of July parade where they show the car, all decked out like in Back to the Future. My son got to sit in it and even pull the door closed. He was in heaven.

The crops have gone from this...

The crops have gone from this…

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...to this...

…to this…

...to this.

…to this.

257

258

Meep tried so hard to catch a fish with her hands.  She got pretty close!

Meep tried so hard to catch a fish with her hands. She got pretty close!

If anyone can tell me what kind of fish these are, I'd appreciate it!

If anyone can tell me what kind of fish these are, I’d appreciate it!


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The Beaches of San Juan County – Part 2

27 Aug
The Deer Harbor Marina.

The Deer Harbor Marina.

The second San Juan County beach I’m featuring is at the Deer Harbor Marina on Orcas Island. The kids and I went there with a friend of mine who still lives on the island (and who will feature in an upcoming post) when she suggested that we might enjoy visiting there. It isn’t all that far from the beach in my last post, but it is hugely different in feel – which you’ll notice from the very first photo! This is a public beach (there are very few on Orcas) and actually, land-owners own beach rights only to the high-tide mark – below that all beaches are open to the public.

So…I give you a sandy/muddy beach – entirely different from the stony, broken-shelled beach where we clammed. No clam chowder recipes this week, but this is definitely a recipe for having a great time on the beach!!

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Love this.  Sand and mud - excellent at massaging one's feet!

Love this. Sand and mud – excellent at massaging one’s feet!

NOT the same beach as the one we clammed at - totally, 100% different.  From a beach that would chop your feet up to a beach that, while slightly slimy, is soft and mushy!!

NOT the same beach as the one we clammed at – totally, 100% different. From a beach that would chop your feet up to a beach that, while slightly slimy, is soft and mushy!!

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At first I thought these were seagull tracks...but they were so large...and then I saw a heron...and figured they must be from him.

At first I thought these were seagull tracks…but they were so large…and then I saw a heron…and figured they must be from him.

Great Blue Heron - he flew about 15 feet away and then landed again.

Great Blue Heron – he flew about 15 feet away and then landed again.

Boo had fun playing by herself while her siblings took a walk further down the shore.

Boo had fun playing by herself while her siblings took a walk further down the shore.

Barnacles and mussels.  You can eat the mussels, but they're pretty tiny.

Barnacles and mussels. You can eat the mussels, but they’re pretty tiny.

A very old oyster, still stuck on the rock - isn't it cool?

A very old oyster, still stuck on the rock – isn’t it cool?

Another Hairy Chiton - I found 3 or 4 on this beach - so cool!

Another Hairy Chiton – I found 3 or 4 on this beach – so cool!

I adore tide pools!  So many wonderful things to find therein!!

I adore tide pools! So many wonderful things to find therein!!

The marina at low tide.

The marina at low tide.

I posted this picture last week, but I really love it and this is the beach where I took the photo.

I posted this picture last week, but I really love it and this is the beach where I took the photo.

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