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On the Road: Bremen, Germany

You may have a dim childhood memory of hearing a fairy tale about some animals who set out to become musicians. This was one of the folk tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm, and is known as the Bremen Town Musicians (Bremer Stadtmusikanten). In the story a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster, all past their prime and on the verge of being killed by their owners, set out together to earn their fortunes as musicians in the city of Bremen.

At the end of their first day on the road they see the lights of a nearby cottage; inside, a band of robbers is enjoying a mound of ill gotten food. The donkey, being the smartest of them, comes up with a plan: the four of them stand at the cottage window, the rooster on top of the cat, who stands on the dog, who stands on the back of the donkey. All at once they begin making their “music” ­— braying, barking, meowing and crowing. The sudden racket frightens off the robbers, and the Musicians invade the house to eat their fill.

Later that night, the robbers return and send one of the bunch in to investigate. In the pitch dark he sees the eyes of the cat. Thinking they are glowing embers, he reaches over to light a match on them. In a split second the cat spits at him and claws him across the face; as the robber runs for the door the dog bites him on the leg. Outside, the donkey lands a solid kick, while the rooster crows at the top of his lungs.

Running screaming back to his companions, he tells them he was attacked by a witch who scratched him with her long nails, a man with a knife who stabbed him in the leg, a huge beast who hit him with a club, and worst of all, the devil himself screaming to bring the man up to the rooftop. The robbers abandon the cottage to the animals, who have live there happily for the rest of their days.

Despite the title of the fairy tale, the musicians never actually make it to Bremen, but I did, my first visit in many years. This time I was guiding a family who's father had emigrated from Bremen in the 1920's, and we had a chance to see the house that he grew up in, as well as wander through the old town that he would have known well. Bremen was heavily bombed in World War II, but the Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall) shown on the left survived almost undamaged, while other sections of the old town have been rebuilt to appear as they were before the war.

We also made a trip to Bremerhaven, just about 50 miles down river from Bremen. Bremen has always been an important shipping port, although it doesn't actually lie on the coast. Ships of the Middle Ages could easily travel up the Weser River to the city to load and unload cargo, but in the early 19th century, as ships got bigger and the river began to silt up, Bremen made a decision to build a new port at the mouth of the river on the North Sea. Bremerhaven (Bremen Harbor) is now one of the busiest ports in Europe. We took a drive through the port area, past thousands of new cars sitting on the docks with no destination in mind -- a sign of the slow economy.

Most impressive to me in Bremerhaven was a new museum, the German Emigration Center. In all, nearly 7 million Germans emigrated during the 19th and 20th centuries (mostly to the USA, but others to Canada or South America). Upon entry, you are given a "passport" with the name and birth date of a real person who emigrated from Germany. As you move through the museum, key points with a card symbol give you more information about your person -- their early history, education and status in Germany, reasons for emigration, and what became of them in the US after they arrived.

Exhibits include a re-creation of the docks where emigrants would have said their last goodbyes to family they would likely never see again. After boarding the ship, you are led through cabins from three different eras: a sailing ship, a steam ship and a large ocean liner. The cabin of the ocean liner was actually from the same ship that my tour group's father had left Germany on. After arrival in the new world, you are given a taste of what it would have been like to come through Ellis Island. And at the end, you have a complete picture of the life of the person who's passport you are carrying (mine was Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios). I wonder if that makes me family? All in all Bremen and Bremerhaven are well worth a look if you're heading for northern Europe.

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