I began to write this as we pulled out of the bus station on our way to the Netherlands. Ten days in northwestern Germany was hard on me. My body told me so – a painful rash, heart palpitations, chest pains, and a headache that began each day the moment I woke up.

We stayed in a pretty city, during a lovely month of the year.  After France and Belgium, it reminded me of a medium-sized town in the US Midwest. Something about the use of space, although by the next day, that feeling wore off and I was making European comparisons.  Our neighborhood reminded me of the London neighborhood depicted in Hollywood’s Mary Poppins with the curved streets and iron gates.  The roses were out.

We were steps from a creek leading to the Weser River. Both creek and river had wide pedestrian and bike paths and benches for picnic lunches. The main old town square was ¾ of a mile away. It had a farmers market six days a week with everything we needed to stay healthy and happy. Berries were in season. A dairy farmer sold sheep cheese, which made my cow-intolerant fellow traveler happy. The castle-like buildings in the old town, some built in the 14th century were enchanting. There was always something going on in the main pedestrian square: music, dance, school groups to watch.


We mostly ate Dave-cooked meals, enjoying the market bounty, but we did have a few meals out. We tried a traditional German place with a limited menu. For me, everything was way too salty. I liked the white asparagus. A group of friends sighed with delight with each bite. They had giant beers. We bought a beer and then a schnapp, trying to achieve the delight their delight—fun, and then shock at the bill.

Most people spoke some English and were willing to endure our attempts at German.

English is the shared second language in Bremen and is used for all visitors who don’t speak German. One day, during a rainstorm, we ducked into a Ratskeller on all the “tourist must visit” lists. It has been in business since the 1400s. The prices were out of our range so we ordered soup and tea.

We began to speak to the waiter in German, defaulting to English.  He asked if we were from France.

“You can’t be American. “You don’t have the accent!”

I  wondered if he was trying to flatter us. What accent were we missing: Boston? Memphis? Minneapolis? Did we sound different after eight months on the run? Perhaps it was not how we sounded, but how we carried ourselves. We have become used to making ourselves at home in foreign places. Maybe it shows.

The restaurant meal was a bowl of borsht at a Russian café. I looked for it after reading that the post-Holocaust Jewish community was from the former Soviet Union, arriving since 1991.  The pre-Holocaust Jewish community was expelled, or deported to concentration camps. An article I read by a local Zionist, published in Israel, lamented that the Russians in Bremen were not very religious or  interested in supporting the Jewish state although she had “made some headway.”

We made a friend at the Russian café. She sat outside in the rain with us, at the only other sidewalk table. She was about 30 and grew up outside of Bremen. She liked the rain because it kept people away. She asked about our travels. “It is the same everywhere, isn’t it?” She put one hand up and the other down.

“Wealth and poverty?” I asked, Checking my translation of her hand motion.

“Yes! But also everywhere you find some people who think.”

My turn for an emphatic yes.

A man with a walker and a smell of the street approached us. Our friend told him we didn’t understand German.

“Can you spare a Euro?” he said in perfect English.

We shook our heads. We honestly did not have coins at the time. Our friend gave us a disdainful look, dug a coin out of her purse, and said “Sharing is caring.” We were hypocrites, talking about wealth and poverty and then failing the mutual aid test.

We didn’t have change, but we only occasionally give when people ask. We put money in the musician’s hat, but that is for services rendered. On our mile walk back to our apartment I counted all the people asking for money: 32—some sitting right next to each other. Thirty-two a day for a month would be about $1000. But also, we spent sixty euros on that salty German meal with drinks.  That would cover two days of sharing,   My safety radar goes up whenever anyone gets in my face. That is an explanation, not an excuse. Sharing is caring. If you want to count yourself at home in a place, that requires doing your part. It’s hard to figure out how to do it any other way when you are just in a place for weeks or a month….

That was just one of the internal dialogues crowding my brain in Bremen.

It started the first morning. We happened upon an outdoor rehearsal of the premiere musical No Rain, drawn to the diverse mix of classical, jazz, and popular music. At one time the entire ensemble belted out Shame Shame, Shame, and my feet would not stay still. Yet,   though I could not understand everything that was happening, I knew there was something I did not like. The tone of the show reminded me of Cabaret. Not the poignant and searing play, but the cabaret within the play with its nihilist and increasingly fascist acts.

Come on Anne. No Rain was not fascist. It was a light-hearted look at how people act when they gather together to fight climate change or attend a football game. So what if it conflated every type of human gathering into rah-rah theater? Sea levels rising, kicking balls. I hated it. And I knew my reaction was unwarranted.

You’re reacting to the sound of German. I told myself. That is pure bigotry.  The dialogues continued as the days passed. A modern dance performance in the Plaza. What’s not to like? Do you want them to say something about the state of the world? Not all art has to be profound. This is a summer family event. People enjoying themselves together. Any other place and you would think this is great. Does the graffiti that covers the town seem narcissistic? You’re not fluent in German or graffiti. Don’t knock what you don’t understand. Not enough Gaza graffiti? There is some. You saw three Free Gazas, covered up by other taggers, isn’t that the graffiti game?


Free Modern Dance performance in the Plaza , Bremen: theme: soccer.

 And so it went.

Before coming to Bremen, I was deeply disturbed by pro-Palestinian protests that were suppressed,  conferences that were canceled, and unwavering German support for Israel, even as causalities in Gaza exploded. I was incensed by the argument that because of the Holocaust, Germany must support Israel. Before October 7th I believed that German Holocaust education—the memorials, museums, concentration Camps transformed into Never Again lessons–were exemplary. The United States should take heed. But now I think there is a serious flaw in Germany’s Holocaust Education. Never Again must be a condemnation of all anti-isms, not just antisemitism.

I had my antennae up when I came out of the pharmacy one afternoon and saw the police accosting a procession of wedding cars, crawling down the road at about five miles an hour. The first car was decorated with roses and ribbons Inside a groom in a tux and a bride all in white.  The other cars were filled with suits and silk dresses. The people were Arab. Some cars had small Palestinian flags.  A man in one of the back cars got out and began to argue with a cop, gesturing his hands to his frustration.  Seven police rushed to his car. What bothered me most was not the cops but the people on the sidelines were laughing. No one seemed the least bit concerned. How was this different than Nazi raids on a Jewish wedding? My stomach hurt.

We joined a protest for Palestine. Chants were in German, English, and even Spanish. Viva Palestina! Deutchland Financier, Israel Bombadier! You decide, justice or genocide. Stop killing children.

There were many children on the march. We made a full circle through downtown and tourist areas, ending at a government building where a Green Party member gave a speech, and an Imam offered a prayer. There were about two hundred people on the march. I counted five people, other than us, who did not appear to be of Arab descent. The police followed the march, which did enter some roads.

Demonstration in solidarity with Palestinians. June, 2024. Bremen, Germany

On another day we encountered three small vigils, each staking out a separate space on the main square. A group of ten Arabic-looking people handed out green, white, and red watermelon-flavored candies and leaflets on Rafah. Twenty yards away, a group held diverse radical signs, including one about Julian Assange, another against NATO, another for disarmament. Staking a third corner of the plaza was a group with Ukraine and EU flags. We walked around them all, and left a donation with the Rafah group.

We came to Bremen for two reasons: 1, it was a German town not far from our next destination in the Netherlands, and 2. Because, when I was a child my Dad used to read me and my brothers the fairy tale about the four musicians of Brementown, four farm animals too old to be useful to their owners, who sneak away and meet up on the road, create a band and make a plan to start their third chapter of life as musicians in Bremen.  My dad was a master storyteller and the memory is golden. I was kind of non-plussed when we got to Bremen and discovered the fairytale is the moniker of the town, the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster appear on t-shirts and grocery bags, and other tourists come from near and far to take photos of themselves next to the statue of the four musicians. I felt like I did when I was seven and I discovered that deviled eggs were not my mom’s ingenious secret recipe.

It is funny that Bremen claims the story because, despite the title, the four friends never make it to Bremen. They take over a farmhouse from a group of robbers and live out their lives together in the countryside, free from their masters.

In addition to a stormy dialogue with myself in Bremen, I talked a lot to my late Dad. I had so many questions to ask him. He has been gone for 24 years. I missed him more on this trip than ever. I wanted to hear his memories and tell him about our adventures, on the phone with him, I had so many questions.  I wondered if his parents told him the story of the Bremen town musicians. Had he ever been here? Why did he love the story so much? What would he think of the rightward surge in Germany and elsewhere?

Not all stories conclude happily. And in life, there is seldom a definitive ending.

The Bremen town musicians