So often we travel to see the sights ... the Great Wall (emblazoned on Today Show as I write), the Taj Mahal, Vatican City. All of those I've seen, and each has in its own way lived up to its hype of engineering and artistry.
More often, though, the images that stick are the places, the people, the circumstances I didn't expect. And that, I've decided after this Baltic trip, may be the best argument for hiring a good guide, at least for a day.
For decades I've wandered around the universe with no more than a Lonely Planet in my hand. As a backpacker, the experiences that meant most to me were lessons about myself as much as about the places I went. Figuring out how to navigate the world's metro systems while keeping my wallet safe as a woman traveling alone, getting my leg stuck in a grate in a busy Bangkok street (locals pulled me out before I was pulverized by a car), meeting fellow travelers nice (and not so) in hostels and cheap hotels worldwide....how better to learn to stay one step ahead of danger?
With a little more money in my pocket -- or maybe just less tolerance for really bad beds -- I find myself impressed by different aspects of travel now. Maybe it's my age ... the condition of having lived long enough to understand what my college professors were really trying to say: that all history is revisionist, no more or less than a wavering reflection of revelation and attitudes through the current gradations of Alice's ever-shifting Looking Glass.
Take Berlin. My first visit five years ago was the guidebook-and-cafe variety. I strolled the avenues, wandered the former East Berlin, visited the bombed ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm church and Sir Norman Foster's glass dome atop the Reichstag and the remarkable Pergamon museum, bastion of Middle Eastern antiquities. I used the loo in Starbucks near the Brandenburg Gate -- clean and free if you're buying coffee.
This last Berlin visit, part of our Baltic cruise, was a whirlwind. The van ride from Warnemude, where the ship docked, was 2 1/2 hours each way to the city. The mission: See it all. Most of our crowd had never been there and wouldn't likely go back.
It wasn't until we met in Berlin that I began to get an outline of his real story: a U.S. intelligence officer posted in Berlin as the Cold War was beginning, whose office sat one floor above Checkpoint Charlie until after the Wall came down.
His personal experience -- delivered in vagueries, without risk to national security even of decades long past -- filled in gaps between "history'' and reality. The famed photo showing Russians planting a flag atop the Reichstag at the end of World War II was doctored to eliminate forbidden watches on the arms of soldiers, to show a billowing flag on a day when the wind didn't flutter, positioned above a city that, on first take, was on the other side of the building. The reported 33 tank-stand off at Checkpoint Charlie involved a mere 11 ... and wasn't much of stand-off at that. And the U.S. government policy of destabilizing the East included handing out maps and arranging bus service for U.S. government workers to shop out the cheap goods in the Eastern City, leaving locals with little to buy.
But what struck me most, perhaps, was his explanation of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate, designed by Peter Eisenman, opened just two years ago. An increasing number of Germans, he said, view it as a memorial to the perpetrators -- partly because of its location above the bunkers of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. Today, there's a tendency among some Germans to say that no one except Hitler knew what was happening; that regular Germans didn't know what was happening to the Jews, homosexuals and so many other "undesireables'' as defined by Nazi policy.
Of course, that claim of denial isn't universal, anymore than the claims that the Holocaust never happened, that the 2005 bombs on the London Underground were staged or that 1969 lunar landing was a mirage. But Campbell's story hit me in a sore spot: That saying something doesn't make it so, regardless of what the government or corporation or individual saying it might have you believe.
It's true of myself as well. The easiest lies to believe, sometimes, are the ones I tell myself. The process of traveling and the lessons large and small aong the way, often peel back the truth.
PHOTOS, copyright Jane Wooldridge: Top: Inside Sir Norman Foster's dome atop the Reichstag; above, actors at Checkpoint Charlie.