Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bear Pit and Fleas

Finally, a decent night's sleep: I went to bed at 11:15 and woke up at 8:20.  Unfortunately, I still have a huge sleep deficit to make up after losing so much on the flight and then the poor sleep the next two days.  Spent a leisurely morning catching up on work and then headed over to the DDR Museum.  This is one my favorite museums in Berlin.  I didn't go last time I was here and I missed it.  Some people accuse it of engaging in Ostalgia (nostalgia for East Germany), but I think they do a pretty good job of capturing daily life under the dictatorship.

While they have lots of displays on the Communist Party, and the Wall, and the army, and the secret police (they've expanded a lot), what I particularly like are the images of every day people.

They just tried so hard to look hip; most of the people ended up looking like used-car salesmen from Nashville in the 1970s.

And what about this living room:  the height of East German style in 1984.

They've almost doubled the size of their exhibition space, and now have displays on life in the East German army, the prisons for dissidents, and the political parties.  I wish I had time to take the students here, but I will encourage them to come on their own, just as I will encourage them to visit the Museum of Communism when we're in Prague.

One of the students asked me yesterday what my favorite city on this trip is.  While Prague is probably the prettiest (as long as it isn't humid and boiling), Vienna is the most opulent (though rather cold at the same time), and Budapest the most convivial (with its communal spas), I think Berlin remains my favorite.  The first time I toured central Europe I was struck by all the things I recognized:  the Jews who came to Israel brought their favorite parts with them.  They brought the cafés and konditoreis, the kiosks and intellectual culture, the art and music.  Wandering around Berlin, you can see what the Jews loved so much and what they tried to take with them when they left (or fled).  At the same time, I probably end up speaking almost as much Hebrew as German with all the Israelis here.    There's something about this city that continues to draw Jews.  Sure, there are Israelis who go to Paris and London, but there's no website called Olim l'Paris (literally using the verb to immigrate to Israel) while there is one called Olim l'Berlin.    More so than any other German city, Berlin remains cosmopolitan.  It's the most unGerman city in Germany.

I met up with the students in the afternoon and we went to visit Mauerpark.  Along the way we stopped off at the remnants of Berlin Wall.  Mauerpark hosts a huge flea market on Sundays, and I wanted to look for some books for my niece.  

I found a book stall and among other things, they had a whole bunch of plays in Germany, including Lessing's Nathan der Weise.  As it happens, I've been reading Amos Elon's The Pity of it All, about the history of German Jews, and I was reading his chapter on Mendelssohn.  Since Lessing modeled the character of Nathan on Mendelssohn, I figured it was beshert (to use a Yiddish phrase) for me to buy this for her.

Afterwards, we went to Bearpit Karaoke.  Run by an expatriate American, you basically have a thousand people on a hillside watching people sing karaoke songs. 

A few sing well (there was one girl from San Diego with a squeaky voice who just rocked  the song "Rolling in the Deep").  Others make up for talent with enthusiasm.  This guy did his best to channel Celine Dion:

We watched the show for over an hour and then wandered through Prenzlauer Berg.  I wanted to make reservations for dinner for Tuesday night (for 14 people).  I was a little nervous (the guy taking the reservation told me to relax), but I did find out that I'll have to bring plenty of cash as they don't take credit cards.  It's a restaurant not that far from Eberwalderstraße and I like it a lot as it's a very traditional, German restaurant, with good and reasonably priced food.  I thought it would be a good introduction to Germany and they have a Spargel (asparagus) menu!

After that we went down to Senefelderplatz for pizza at the anarchist restaurant I like.  On the way back we saw people tangoing at a cafe on the banks of the Spree, while other sat out in beach chairs enjoying the last glimmers of twilight (at 9:30 pm).

Without Cares

My second night was only slightly more restful than my first:  I did manage to have some dreams, but they were work anxiety nightmares.  This was a new one though.  My typical work anxiety dream is that I'm a student, it's the last week of the semester, and I've just realized I was enrolled in a class that I forgot to attend.  I've had papers due for weeks, which I haven't done and I can't find the syllabus.  This dream was different.  This time I dreamt that I was a professor who had forgotten to teach a class and hadn't shown up for a week.  I woke up wondering if I had given all the finals I was supposed to (I had).

After breakfast, I met up with one of my students and we headed down to Potsdam.  I heard about her adventures the day before, wandering around the neighborhood.  At one point she got lost (well, at more than one point), and she used the mnemonic device I had told her ("Orange Burger Street") to find our hostel (Oranienburger Straße).

We took the bus to Friedrich the Great's summer home away from home:  Schloß Sans Souci (Sans Souci Palace). 

After buying timed tickets to tour the main quarters, we wandered around the gardens.  There were a few nice bits of Eighteenth-Century orientalism:

This is the Chinesisches Teehaus.  After all the drought we have suffered in Southern California, it was nice to luxuriate in a garden that has plenty of water.

While King Friedrich grew lots of fresh fruit, we didn't see any orchards, but lots of spring flowers:

There's no tour guide for the palace.  Rather, they give you a headset in the language of your choice and you go through with everyone in your time slot.  You can take photos, but only if you buy a special permit.  Guards in every room keep an eagle eye out for tourists sneaking shots.  My student took some surreptitiously, but I was too concerned about getting caught.  The palace is much, much smaller than similar places like Warsaw Castle or Wilanow Palace in Warsaw, or the grand daddy of them all:  Versailles.  Still, it was a lot of fun.  Two things were very clear from the tour:  Friedrich had major issues with his father and absolutely no affection for the wife his father made him marry.

Afterwards, I thought we might stop at the film museum in Potsdam, but our bus didn't stop there.  Instead, we headed to west Berlin so I could pick up some Neuhaus chocolate at KaDeWe.  In addition to the radically different feel west Berlin has from the east, today there was a new element:  all the crowds of Dortmund fans in Berlin for the final of the German soccer cup. 

There were a fair amount of police out, but no one was getting out of control and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  Dortmund fans were everywhere in Berlin.  For every thousand Dortmund fans, I think I saw one Wolfburg fan.  Not sure where they were hiding.  Unfortunately, though, Dortmund lost the game last night:  1:3.

It's always fun to wander around KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens - the largest department store in Europe).  In the food courts on the 6th floor, they have display cases for gourmet delicacies from various countries.  Here's one of my students in the American section.

Jif peanut butter, CoffeeMate, Marshmallow Creme, and Pop Tarts: our gastronomic gifts to the world.

We had a little bit of drizzle on the walk back from the subway to the hostel, but not bad considering it had been threatening to rain on and off all day. 

Unlike west Berlin, there's tons of art on the walls of buildings in the east.  For example, there was a famous squatter art studio just up the street from the hostel called Kunsthaus Tacheles.  Opened a few months after the fall of the wall, it flourished until 2012, when it was shut down so the space could be developed.  Fenced off, it still remains vacant, though some of the wall murals remain:

It may be hard to make out, but that's a giant cockroach emerging from the wall, right of the face.  Beneath it is a green sign (by the Green Party) that says:  "Before the Wall, after the Wall, the state harasses the bugs."

After walking around to find the nearest ATM machine and laundromat (for the students), I made my way to Prenzlauer Berg to have dinner in one of my favorite restaurants:  Gugelhof.   This restaurant specializes in Alsatian food, and I decided to start off my meal with something I ordered two years ago:  the duck liver paté prepared like crème brûlée, with onion marmalade:

I went somewhat lighter for the main course.  I ordered the Beelitz asparagus (a white asparagus, particularly loved in Germany), with hollandaise sauce and roasted potatoes.  Most people order it with either ham or schnitzel, but I had had schnitzel for lunch and wanted to go lighter.

I had a glass of Weißburgunder (known elsewhere as pinot blanc) to wash it down.  Smooth, fruity, with no trace of oak, it was perfect.

By the time I got back to the U-bahn it was 8:40 pm but the sun was still out.  It doesn't set here until after 9.

Back at the hostel, I watched the last 30 minutes of the soccer match.  There was a family watching nearby, and the little boy (perhaps 6) was wearing a yellow Dortmund jersey.  Every time the Wolfburg goalie blocked a shot, he stomped around and kicked the sofa in frustration.  Unfortunately, Dortmund lost.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Back to the Archives

Yesterday afternoon I had a pleasant conversation with two Israelis staying in the hostel; they're part of the large ex-pat Israeli community in Berlin.  Neither wants to live here permanently, but perhaps just for a little while.  We talked for about an hour, all in Hebrew, so I've probably spoken more Hebrew than German so far.

I kind of lost track of time, so I raced out around 6:15 pm to pick up the first student, who arrived at Schönefeld, the old Soviet airport in the south of Berlin.  What a schlep!  The drizzle stopped and I did get a wonderful shot of this rainbow over Berlin:

I'm glad I gave myself a little extra time as they train to the airport seemed not to be running.  I changed to a direct bus and got there as the student's plane was landing.   What a decrepit airport!  Very sad and depressed.  Tegel may be a little old and run down, but it's far friendlier.  Terminal C at Tegel is very, very similar in layout to Schönefeld, but Tegel has nice cafes and stores; Schönefeld just feels like a mostly empty warehouse, with a food stall (singular).  The decor looks like it was last updated in 1982.

Found the student with no difficulty and guided her back to the hostel.  After checking her in, we went for dinner in the neighborhood.  When I'm in central Europe, I go on a beer and torte diet.  Here's the first beer of the trip:

After dinner I was ready to crash.  I returned to the hostel, typed up yesterday's entry and went right to bed.  I figured I would sleep right through to morning, but that was not the case.  As a result of the jet lag, I slept quite fitfully.  When I woke up at 4:45, I took half an Ambien and slept 'til 8:45.

Today and Friday are work days.  Today was the Landesarchiv Berlin, the archive for the state (province) of Berlin.  Like the newspaper collection of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Landesarchiv is in what appears to be a renovated factory from the 19th century:

No problem finding the archive or getting in.  They had a microfilm machine ready for me with the microfilm I requested.  I eventually found the document I was looking for:  a copy of the verdict against the lyricist I'm studying, laying out the crimes he was convicted of.  It's rather chilling and even embarrassing to read his dating habits reduced to criminal terminology. One hour and 14 Bundesarchiv (the government archives) in southern Berlin.  Not sure exactly what they have; they only replied to my email yesterday morning and I had to print out the forms I am to bring this afternoon.

Since I had some free time, I went to the Hauptbahnhof to buy the metro passes for the students (when you're buying 14 week-long metro passes at 29 Euros each, it's probably better to do the transaction with a live person).  It was almost sunny, so I decided to go for a walk.  When the weather gets warm, Berliners create their own "beach" along the Spree River.

The boat tours go up and down the Spree from opposite Museuminsel.  If you look above the beach chairs, but below the federal government buildings, you make out a line of segways, who appeared to be on a group segway tour of the center of Berlin.

From there I walked to the Brandenburg Gate, where they are setting up a big podium and platform for some event next week.  All day long, I've been seeing people dressed in yellow and black t-shirts and sweatshirts around the center of Berlin.  They're here for the finals of the German soccer season:  Dortmund vs Wolfsburg tomorrow afternoon.  Almost everyone I saw was supporting Dortmund.

After all that walking, I decided to get back to work:  by going to Café Einstein on Unter den Linden.  This has a rather different feel from the original location near Nollendorfplatz.  A lot more diplomats and high-priced executives come here.

I had brought a copy of a poem written by Bruno Balz in 1927 for the 8th anniversary of the founding of the Bund für Menschenrecht, a very early gay rights organization.  In February 1934, the Schweizerisches Freundschafts-Banner reprinted it on its cover, on the one-year anniversary of the Nazis coming to power.  Called "Wir Wachen" (We Awake), it is (literally) a call to arms to defend freedom.  My goal for the afternoon was to translate the poem (and have a café au lait and a slice of Käsekuchen):

That's Balz's photo on the cover along with his poem.  It took no small amount of courage for someone so prominent to take so public a position.  Here's how the poem opens:
We struggle and fight year after year
For freedom and for understanding.
We struggle – and see year after year
That sorrow passes.

Still, the cry of despair rings out:
“We cannot bear it any longer!”
Yet while we are still not free,
Neither are we beaten!

 This was published just three months after one of Balz's most famous successes: the original 1933 Viktor und Viktoria (more famously remade in 1982 by Blake Edwards with Julie Andrews). Balz wrote the lyrics and some of the sung dialogue within the film.

Tonight I went back to Tegel Airport to meet the second student.  I waited in the main hall 'til the board showed his plane had landed.

Although delayed, his plane finally landed and his baggage came through.  A much less eventful bus ride back to town.  His hostel and my hostel are just two buildings apart, so we ended up eating dinner between them.  First schnitzel of the trip:

Tomorrow I'm going to try to get to Potsdam.  I haven't seen the Sans Souci Palace since 2007.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

My New Favorite Airlines

Lufthansa is now my new favorite airlines.

I flew from Los Angeles to Frankfurt on an Airbus 380-800, which has to be one of the largest passenger planes being used now.  They loaded the planes with four rows simultaneously.  Just take Door #1, my line was told (as opposed to the three other gang planks.  They loaded that ship faster than a Carnival Cruise.

Unlike so many domestic carriers, who charge even just to listen to music, Lufthansa had dozens of recent motion pictures to pick from, including Ex Machina, which is still in theaters.  The real surprise came with the cocktail cart:  cocktails, wine, and beer, all complimentary.  In Economy Class!  Then a refill of wine with dinner.  But when they came around afterwards to offer me either cognac or Bailey's over ice that my jaw figuratively hit the ground.

When I saw the one-year old a few rows ahead of me when I boarded I groaned to myself:  no, not screaming baby airlines again. Thankfully, though, the kid was very well behaved (or drugged) and never cried out until the very end of the flight.  Still, I only got 2.5 hours of sleep.  I am so tired right now.

The change of planes in Frankfurt was smooth and efficient.  In Berlin, there was no question of where to find the baggage claim:  each pair of gates has its own.  Within 15 minutes of landing our luggage was popping up.  From there it was a straight shot through customs.  Why can't our country be the same.  I would compare it to a third world country, if that wasn't an insult to third world countries.

A little bit of excitement on the bus ride from Tegel airport.  The driver was trying to shut the doors when a guy ran and forced his way on.  The driver yelled at him; he yelled at the driver.  We sat there for 10 minutes with nothing happening.   Then, the police arrived.  Eventually, the passenger was forced from the bus, and the bus driver drove off (though not before the ejected passenger slapped the side of the bus with his palm.

I'm staying again at the Generator Hostel in Mitte.  It's just down the block from the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße.  I went out for a walk after checking in, but it started to drizzle.  I ended up getting a cafe latte and chatting with a couple of Israelis staying here.

My room is a lot like the one I had last time:  two twin beds, lots of plain pine furnishings, clean and sparse.   I'd write more, but I really need to get some sleep.  I'll fill in more details tomorrow.