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Three weeks ago, Michelle and I landed in Paris – the city of lights. Oh la la!
We wanted to see it all: the Louvre, l’Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, and every little boulangerie in town. Paris is a beautiful city and it didn’t seem right to miss out on these stereotypical yet unmissable attractions.
So, like any self-respecting tourist, we went on a tour. For us, starting with a free walking tour has always been the perfect introduction to a new city. We got an overview of the main tourist sites, the history, and learned about everything so we could choose what to explore afterwards.
Our walking tour of Paris was wonderful. Our guide walked us through the Île de la Cité and the Louvre and told us all about the grandeur of King Louis the XIV. It was all very magnificent and beautiful, but something was missing – anything bad at all.
In a region infamous for World Wars, the plague, the Reign of Terror, religious persecution, and revolutions, we didn’t really hear about any of it. Nothing
And you may say it’s a fluke – but our tour of Versailles shared the same sentiment.
After Paris, we visited Munich. Within the first five minutes, our tour guide was diving into the Third Reich and Hitler’s rise to power. Prague, too, had the same balance in historical references and our tour guide in Brussels – a city which I mistakenly thought would have a boring past – shared events of Belgian imperialism and even genocide. The difference between these tours and the one we took in Paris was striking.
In talking with our tour guides along the way, we learned that many of them are discouraged from sharing bloody, scary, or negative aspects of a city’s past because, allegedly, it could upset tourists or diminish their impression of the city (and their profits).
Although there’s a natural human tendency to avoid depressing situations (and who am I kidding, I want to enjoy my vacations as well), I believe we have an obligation to respect the past by learning about it and keeping all history alive, not just the good stuff; a concept that’s eloquently captured by the German word vergangenheitsbewältigung.
Vergang in heights be walty what?
Vergangenheitsbewältigung – the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” – is a mouthful of a German word that promotes the idea that negative historical events should be actively adopted into society. Largely its context comes from Word War II, the Nazi atrocities, and whether or not to consciously embrace history and learn from it or to keep it tucked neatly away in high school text books and Travel Channel documentaries.
Germany is a great example of this. Though some would say that they don’t exactly have a choice about whether to accept or ignore their troubled past, the way they’ve chosen to honor the victims and heroes is truly extraordinary. Monuments and museums almost overwhelm German cities. Every street corner, sidewalk, doorframe, town square, and wall is marked by history in some way. Children even go through years of history lessons on WW2 alone.
It’s inescapable and that’s the point.
I get it. With 2 weeks of vacation time every year you don’t want to spend it feeling sad or uncomfortable. It’s a vacation, enjoy it!
Even so, I truly believe that we have an obligation to at least acknowledge the negative history of a place when traveling.
You shouldn’t go to Munich for the beer without visiting the Dachau concentration camp. You shouldn’t go to Paris for the cheese and baguettes without learning that 1977 was the last year the Guillotine was used to execute a criminal. You shouldn’t take a #nofilter selfie with the Tower of London looming in the background without understanding it’s torturous and bloody history. Traveling to a place – and really loving it – requires complete context.
So, on your next trip, think about taking a tour you normally wouldn’t. Ask unsettling questions. Dedicate some time to learning about the past – even the troubling parts – so you can love a place completely. Get uncomfortable. Embrace the vergangenheitsbewältigung.