Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Riding the Fast Train

Trains have always held a fascination for me.  On occasion I have taken Amtrak between Portland and Olympia, and found it to be a refreshing way to make the commute...much more relaxing than battling the freeway (though I must admit the stretch north of Vancouver, WA to Exit 88 to Tenino and then on to Offut Lake is generally less crowded).  Although it is touted as a way to catch up on work or reading a novel, I have more often found myself simply gazing out of the window at the passing scenery.

As a child I remember counting the rail cars while stopped at a crossing, and it was a very special treat to see an old locomotive under full steam.  Now as an engineer (and no, not the train type of engineer!) I find myself involved in various transit and light rail projects over the course of my career.  The whistle of a distant train still evokes a smile on my face.

During our trip through Europe we thought it would be fun to ride the train from London to Paris.  The Eurostar runs non-stop from the International Station in London (to which we rode in the "Tube" or London's subway. Yes, more trains!) into the heart of Paris, arriving about 2 hours and 15 minutes after pulling away in London. 

Train stations in Europe (or at least in London and Paris) are vastly different than our American counterparts.  Here we sit waiting for our departure in London's St. Pancras International, which more resembles a major airport with the restaurants and shops.
I think the caption for this picture is either "I've got a ticket to ride", or "I'm going to Paris!"

I would include a photo out of our window, but the train simply travelled too fast! For most of the trip we were approximately 300 Kilometers per hour, or 180 miles per hour.  Everything outside was a blur.  I was especially curious about the portion under the English Channel, but we could've been travelling at night for all the difference it made.  Despite the speed, it was extremely comfortable.
Paris' Gard du Nord station, our destination
One very nice thing about train travel in general, and travelling in Europe, is the sheer convenience of it.  The train arrives, we disembark, and walk towards the exit and our taxi.  No security, no passport check, no long walk down endless concourses...and you are immediately in the heart of the city.  Between the subway systems in Paris and London, the streetcars in Amsterdam and the "normal" train (which only goes around 80 mph), it's the only way to travel.

The train schedule board in Paris.  Every so many minutes the letters and numbers would flip and the changes would cascade down the face of the panel. 
After spending a few days in Paris, we then boarded another high speed train that would take us to Rotterdam, where we would then transfer to Holland's train system.  The Paris-to-Rotterdam was another rail company called Thalys. 

The Thalys train in Paris, going to Rotterdam
Inside the passenger car

We chose First Class, partly because we were late in obtaining our tickets and they couldn't guarantee we would sit together, and we thought it would be cool.  It was!  The seats were very comfortable (two on one side and one on the other side of the aisle), a meal was included, as were glasses of wine.

Arrival at Rotterdam station
The Thalys train was almost 30 minutes late leaving Paris, which meant we would miss our connecting train at Rotterdam.  However, the agent assured us that was not a problem.  We could simply hop on the next train to our destination.  The ticket would still be honored...and one was leaving in just 10 minutes.  Yes, we made it.

All the trains in Europe are electric.  I took this picture simply because I was designing similar structures that support overhead wires for the new train out to Denver's airport. 

I highly recommend riding the rails in Europe.  As the old Western Airlines commercial (with the cigar-smoking bird) said, "It's the only way to fly!"


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Camp Unpleasant History

One usually goes on a vacation to get away from the daily grind of life, and to escape the seemingly constant cries from our computer inbox or the incessant chirps and pings of our ever-present cell phones.  Escape, indeed?  Often it takes great concentration to ignore the beckonings of our work world.  To free one's mind from those beckonings is it's own reward, and that we did...for the most part.

However, I also enjoy learning new things and experiencing places not typically on a tour agenda.  During our stay with my cousins near Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands, we had the opportunity to visit Camp Westerbork Memorial Site.  While the name doesn't have the same notoriety as Nazi camps further east such as Auschwitz and Sobibor, Westerbork served a crucial role in the history of Jews during World War II and is well known to Dutch citizens.  It was not a labor or extermination camp such as the more notorious, but served as a transfer point for 107,000 Jews, Gypsies, Resistance Fighters and others from the Netherlands to camps and ultimately the fate of 102,000 of them.  Of those who passed through this camp, only 5,000 survived to the end of the war.  Among the notable "guests" of Westerbork were Anne Frank and her family.

It was a cloudy and somewhat foggy day when we arrived, which gave a surreal atmosphere to the camp. Birds were singing and the trees had sprouted their iridescent spring leaves, which seemed in contrast to the eerie silence.  Though much of the camp structure has been removed, mounds delineate where the barracks and other buildings were formerly located.  One can also see rail ties for the trains that brought people in...and then took them on to their final destinations.

What structures are present have been faithfully reconstructed using photographs.  The barbed wire fence, the guard tower, are stark reminders of life in this camp between 1940 and 1945.  I found the symbolism of the rails ripped from the ties especially poignant.

Perhaps the most moving part of the memorial (and the main purpose of this place is now to never forget what happened) are the stones laid out in patterns on the for each of the 107,000 that didn't return.  Most have the Star of David representing their religious belief, but others had symbols for Gypsies and those who resisted their captors.

It is easy to view this impersonally, given the sheer numbers of those who perished.  Even the 102,000 seem like a drop in a bucket when one considers the more than 6 million total that died in the Holocaust.  Yet the photograph speaks of the individuals...the families...the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters...neighbors...coworkers.  

On the road into the memorial is a marker of the numbers who went on to those more notorious camps, such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen...the list seems endless.

"In Auschwitz-Birkenau were more than 56,500 Jews out of the Netherlands, and more than 200 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) out of the Netherlands murdered"  

Murdered.  So reads the block.  So visceral are the feelings that words are not minced.  There are other blocks for the other camps where they were murdered.  You can read the numbers on the top of each block. 

General history aside, one of the reasons for my visit was to connect with a piece of my family's past. Though it all happened before I was born (barely!), the events of WWII had such a profound effect on my parents' generation that their values and impressions couldn't help but be passed on to me.  I am not certain, but it is very possible my uncle, who was arrested, tried and sentenced to the camps early in the war for his resistance activities, may have passed through this camp.  More on that later.

As is often the case when one turns over the rocks of one's past, one will often find some surprises. Westerbork also served as a prison or holding place for Dutch citizens who collaborated with the enemy.  It seems that some family members spent time here for those reasons.  That realization was somewhat unsettling at first, but as one ponders, it becomes very difficult to cast judgement as none of us know what we would do given similar circumstances.  More on that later as well.

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