Friday, May 31, 2019

Hostel Hell

Hostile Hostel Hell

I slept a good eight hours last night and was sorry to have to leave the nice pension where I’ve spent the last two nights.  Well, I thought, it will give me a chance to check out the Generator Hostel in Prenzlauer Berg, which I’ve thought about booking before.  For the last three trips, we’ve stayed it her sister location in Mitte, so I figured this place would be similar.  I was wrong.

First, it’s really more like Prenzlauer Berg adjacent.  Eleven minutes and three stations east and south of where I was staying in Prenzlauer Berg. According to the maps, it technically is in the far eastern section of the neighborhood, but this really is quite different from the neighborhood I’ve been staying in since 2006.

When I arrived at 10:30, I knew it was too early to check into my room, so I asked where I could leave my luggage.  “Up the stairs and to the left.”  There I found a room of lockers that I could rent by the hour.  Talking about nickel and diming your clientele (I suppose that should be pfennig and cent)!  I rented for six hours, put away my suitcase and book bag, and headed out Museum Insel.

Since the only museum I’ve ever gone to on Museum Insel is the Pergamon, I thought today might a good day to check out what else is there.  I bought a pass to the other museums on the island and started with the Neues Museum, which holds their Egyptian collection and other antiquities.

The audio guide was complimentary, but mostly useless.  Half the time when I pressed in a number of an item I wanted to learn about I had an error message “no such number.” I enjoyed several of the Egyptian statuary, including their most famous piece:  the bust of Nefertiti. 

I was also surprised to see the jewelry that Schliemann did at the site he identified of Troy, but of course, he was German, so surely much of his finds came here.  They have a fair amount of the gold and silver Schliemann believed (without much evidence) belonged to King Priam, but they are rather bitter about the stuff stolen by the Russians after WWII.  That being said, if the gold and silver “belonged” to anyone, it’s probably the people of Turkey, so I’m not sure the museum is really in the right here.

By 1 pm, I needed lunch, so I walked over the Spree to a little neighborhood store and bought a sandwich, and then ate it on a shady bench (it was a bright and sunny day) along the Spree.  My second museum of the day was the Alte National Galerie.  This is a complement to the Neue National Galerie, which is closed for remodeling, and is devoted to mostly German paintings of the nineteenth century. 

I really liked two of the Casper David Friedrich paintings they had, though the rest were just ok.  Monk on the Sea and The Abbey Among Oak Trees, captures well the German Romantic spirit that Friedrich represents so well.  Josef Danhauser’s 1840 painting, Liszt at the Piano, also is wonderfully melodramatic, with Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Niccolo Paganini, and Giaocchino Rossini all in attendance.  His girlfriend, Countess Marie d’Agoult has her back to us as she sits at his feet.

Their Impressionist exhibit included a rather prominent painting by Gustave Caillebot:  Paris Street, Rainy Day.  “But you’re in Chicago!” I thought.  Sure enough, it’s on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The rooms dedicated to realism, on the other hand, were quite confusing.  Some fit that description, but pointillist works? Symbolist paintings called “Guardian in Front of the Garden of Love”?  Lesser Ury’s “In a Café.  Woman in Red”?  After a break for Apfelschorle (sort of apple cider) in the gift shop, it was time to check into the hostel.

I had no trouble checking in and retrieved my luggage.  My room is on the fourth floor, but it turns out only one elevator is working and thus has seven floors and 240 rooms, many of them dorm rooms with many people staying in each.  Each time I’ve been in the elevator, it’s been full to capacity.  I’ll be taking the stairs a lot.

My room is rather small.  Not only is it smaller than where I was staying, it’s smaller than the rooms at the Generator Hostel Mitte.  In fact, the room is smaller than the cabin my father and I had on the ship last summer.  The hallway has a really funky smell too.  I could hear parents and children screaming the hall, and there were children running up and down the central stairs, and in the dinner café where I’m typing this now.  It’s really noisy, though I’m hoping none of that will be audible in my room four floors up.  Breakfast isn’t included, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning to see what my 6 euros will buy me. Well, it’s only for two nights.

After all that, I felt I deserved a treat, so I went back to Schönhauser Allee to buy the paper and get some Kaffee und Kuchen, but it’s closed for the holiday.  Instead, I went to Friedrichstrasse Station, which was open. Then I walked all the way to Gendermenmarkt to the Fassbender und Rausch chocolate store I took my niece and nephew last summer.   They’ve really changed the main sales floor, but I was more interested in the chocolate café upstairs.

I knew I was going to get a Milchkaffee, but I wasn’t sure what to get as a dessert.  I asked the waitress which she preferred:  the Marzipan Törtchen or the Mozart Törtchen?  First, she said that both were good, but then she pointed out that the Mozart had pistachios, which I think was her way of suggesting it, so I ordered it.  The menu describes it as “a duet of nougat and pistachio mousse with dark sponge cake.  The cake forms the base for the nougat and the mousse, topped with a thin chocolate wafer and a little garnish of chopped pistachios in a light sweet syrup.  It was the relaxation that I needed.

My last museum of the day was the Film Museum in Potsdamer Platz.  Sure enough it was free, and I spent a fair amount of time with both the Weimar film section and the Nazi film section.  They really love Marlene there.

For dinner, I headed back to Gugelhof in Prenzlauer Berg.  They have one of my all-time favorite appetizers:  duck liver crème brulee with onion marmalade and salad.  The main course of schnitzel wasn’t bad, but wasn’t particularly special.  Still, at least tonight, the waitress didn’t forget me, but brought me the bill immediately after I asked for it.

That was probably the heaviest meal I’ve eaten since I left the States, so I took a 20-minute walk afterwards to help digest.  Now, I’m back in the hostel trying to cope with all the noise. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


Apparently, I’ve become completely forgettable, but more on that below.  Let me first focus on what went right today.

I slept very well last night.  About thirty minutes before bed, I took some melatonin, and then at bed time, a Benadryl.  Usually, my problem with jetlag isn’t falling asleep but staying asleep.  After six hours of sleep, I woke up around 4 am.  I decided to take half an Ambien and slept until 8 am. Since it was only half, I didn’t wake up with any lingering grogginess.

The breakfast buffet was nice and on a par for a German pension.  There was the cold cut and sliced cheese platters for the Germans, along with soft boiled eggs, cut fruit, and rolls covered in various seeds.  I made some toast and had salad caprese along with some German yoghurt, followed by some very American-style cereal and milk.

Since the courtyard beneath my window is a playground for a kindergarten, I feared they might wake me up, but the kids didn’t arrive until after 9:30, around the time I was getting ready to head out.  My big splurge while traveling is to pick up a daily paper (it used to be the International Herald Tribune, but now it’s the International New York Times).  The bookstore next to the S-Bahn station that carries it doesn’t open until 10, but that was only a five-minute wait.  Then it was off to the archives.

There was a cute episode on the S-Bahn.  A man with a medium-sized dog got on the train and was sitting a few seats to my right.  Further down the car was a mother with a five-year old kid, who was holding a life-sized stuffed golden retriever.  I noticed that the actual dog was whimpering.  She thought the boy’s toy dog was real and wanted to go sniff and play with it.  We all smiled and the dog owner kept trying to reassure the dog there was nothing to do.

At first, I assumed these were the same archives I visited in 2016 while working on my Balz article, but no, while they are in the same general part of Berlin (the south west), as I approached the elegant Baroque-style building, I realized this is where I came 21 years ago, on my first trip to Germany.  Sure enough, as they brought me the files I requested, I found my name and signature from 31 March 1998 on the inside check out slip. In one case, I had the only signature, which turned out to be the file I needed the most.  In two files, I saw that Ismar Schorsch had checked them out before me (well before me, in 1977; in fact, I suspect I knew where to look for them in the first place because he probably cited them in his research).

I had come back to these archives to reexamine files I had looked at 21 years ago, because I had trouble reading some of the microfilm the archives had sent me back in 1998.  Originally, my dissertation was going to need this information, but since my topic was changed during my oral exams, I never used it, but now I need to.  Part of what had surprised me was that when Graetz (the subject of my research – a nineteenth-century Jewish historian) enrolled at the University of Breslau, in the School of Medicine, Philosophy department, he didn’t major in either philosophy or philology, but apparently in a catch-all department that included “natural sciences.”  I was having trouble reading the other two specialties and I thought having the original in front of me would help.  It did.

By comparing the entries from year to year, I was able to figure out that the second specialty was “Mathematik” (i.e., mathematics), but the first one – “Cameral.” – wasn’t ringing any bells. When I got back to my hotel and googled it, I found this is the old German term for someone studying “public administration.”  These are still surprising since Graetz did not go on to become a public administrator, a mathematician, or a scientist.  On the other hand, there were a lot of restrictions on Jews attending Prussian universities.

I also noticed that under “Remarks” there was a notation that was somewhat difficult to make out (I’m still struggling with nineteenth-century German cursive).  At first, all I could tell was this remark only appeared for new students who were from Posen (now, Poznan in Poland) who were Jewish.  By comparing the remark in different handwriting from different years, I was finally able to figure out that it said “Minis. Erl.”, short for Ministerium Erlaubt, or “allowed by the Ministry” (the Ministry of Culture).  He needed special permission to attend the University of Breslau.

This time, I didn’t have to worry about microfilming; I was permitted to photograph all the pages I wanted (once they made sure I wasn’t working with sensitive files; as soon as he saw “Kultusministerium” on the files, he said “copy as much as you like”).  After about three hours, I was done with my work and headed out to find a late lunch. 

Without any specific plans for what to do if I finished early, I headed over to Nollendorfplatz, picked up a small sandwich, and then decided to walk to a museum in the neighborhood.  Along the way, I accidentally found myself in a red-light district.  In the space of a block and a half, almost a dozen scantily dressed women all carrying small purses, all came up to me to ask me what was going on.  It was like running an obstacle course! 

The small purses, by the way, are an essential part of a prostitute’s attire in Berlin.  How do I know this?  My father’s cousin grew up in Berlin and loved to swing her purse when she walked along the street as a young girl. She told me that her mother scolded her, since swinging a purse was one way prostitutes would signal their profession. 

Anyway, I got a bit lost but eventually found the place.  After about an hour of walking to, in, and from the museum, I thought I deserved a reward for all my exercise and for my success at the archives. I was only about two blocks away from Café Einstein Stammhaus, so I stopped in.  It was such a nice day, I thought I would sit in the garden, but it was closed.  I could sit by the window overlooking the garden, I was told, so I did.

I made sure to carefully examine the pastry case before taking my seat, and settled on the Himbeer-Mandel-Torte, or Raspberry Almond Cake.  I also ordered their Viennese café au lait to drink with it.   This comes with a pitcher of hot coffee and a pitcher of steamed milk, so you can decide how strong or weak to make it.  I managed to get four cups out them. 

The cake was delicious!  It has a thin layer of crispy almond base, followed by a thin layer of sponge cake (Biskuit in German), an equal layer of raspberry mousse stabilized with gelatin, another layer of sponge cake, and second layer of the mousse, and then finally topped with glazed raspberries.  The side of the cake was covered in toasted, sliced almonds.  It was very good and I made sure not to rush eating it.  Reading my novel and part of the paper, I managed to stretch this one cake and coffee into an hour. Finally, around 4 pm, when almost everyone who had been seated near me when I sat down had already left, I asked for the bill.  And now my troubles began.

I’m being melodramatic; it wasn’t that bad.  The waitress asked if I wanted to pay with cash or card and I said “cash.”  Then she left.  After about 10 minutes, I began to wonder when she would come with the bill.  When she had brought the cake and coffee she had said something that I didn’t quite catch.  When I asked her to repeat herself she said in a much louder voice that she forgot the coffee spoon and would be right back.  I thought, “God, am I losing my hearing.”  Now, though, when she hadn’t come with the bill, I started to wonder if she disliked me.

About ten minutes later, a couple who had come in after me and were served by the same waitress, went up to the maître d’ to pay their bill, saying they didn’t know where their waitress was.  At that point, I realized it wasn’t just me.  She came back from wherever she was and apologized to them.  Then as she walked by she saw me, nodded and touched the side of her nose with her finger, and then walked to print out my bill.  She came over, handed it to me and apologized, saying that she had forgotten it.  I paid and left.

A short U-Bahn trip later I was in Potsdamer Platz.  I checked out the Film Museum to see if they would be open tomorrow (it’s a Christian holiday called Christi Himmelfahrt  - the Ascension of Jesus – and all government and state offices are closed).  While I could have found this out online, when I went in person I was told that not only will they be open, but admission will be free after 4 pm). 

It’s not far from there to the Neue Nationalgalerie, but as I approached I could see that I won’t be visiting it any time soon:  the whole area is a construction site, as Mies van der Rohe building is refurbished.  I noticed a very contemporary building behind it and the Berlin Philharmonik; this turned out to be the Kultur Forum, which has been around since 1998.  How have I missed it? I wondered.  Because it’s dedicated to art from the 13th through the 18th centuries, and my preferences are for modern.

I walked again, past the T-4 Memorial, noticing a text I hadn’t seen before a little further down, along with an earlier metal memorial.  I need to find out more about this older memorial.

From there I walked to the Brandenburg Gate and down Unter den Linden.  I wanted to pick up the schedule for the Komische Oper and the Deutsche Oper, which I did.  Finally, at Alexanderplatz, I took the U-Bahn back up to the pension.

For dinner, I decided to stay local and went to a Bavarian restaurant nearby.  It was such a pleasant evening, I sat outside on the patio.  I saw they had a special Spargelkarte or “Asparagus Menu,” so I ordered the cream of asparagus soup, and an order of asparagus with hollandaise sauce and salted potatoes, along with a small beer to wash it all down.  The soup and asparagus were delicious (not so much the boiled potatoes), but it started to get chilly as the sun set, so I requested the bill.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After 15 minutes, I again signaled for the bill, and the waiter came back with it and apologized, saying that he forgot.  I never have this happen, but it happened twice today.  Apparently, I’m very forgettable.

I’m going to pack up most of my stuff tonight.  With the archives and the state library closed tomorrow, I can have a relaxed morning changing hotels and then it’ll be off to the galleries. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Arriving in Berlin

I’m off to Berlin again, to lead students around central Europe.  I always arrive a few days before them as it 1) gives me a chance to do some research; 2) means that I won’t have jet lag while handling all the logistics; 3) will have a limited chance to see parts of the city that I love, but won’t have time for once the students arrive.

The flights were (mostly) uneventful.  The flight from JFK to Berlin was somewhat delayed due to a late arriving prior flight, but we also had a problem with a passenger.  I actually noticed her in the boarding area.  It was hard not to, since she seemed to have a really awful set of hiccups, the ones where you sound like you’re sort of gagging.  Her face could curdle milk, and I thought, she’s probably had the hiccups for years.  I kind of worry about that every time I get them:  will they ever go away.  She looked the way I imagine someone who can’t stop hiccupping would look after a year or two.  I worried that she might end up sitting next to me and I wouldn’t able to sleep with her constant gagging.

I was relieved when I saw that her seat was at least 10 rows behind me on the opposite side of the plane, but I was surprised to see the stewardess walking her towards the front of the plane, and then going back for her jacket and purse.  I figure they were upgrading her seat, but a little while later, the pilot came on to say that due to a “passenger issue,” we would be delayed again while they retrieved her suitcase from the hold.  It didn’t take that long and we ended up arriving in Berlin just three minutes late.

Some people can sleep anywhere, in any position.  I am very envious of such people because I find it very, very hard to sleep on planes. I took melatonin this time and managed to doze about two and a half hours, which is very, very good for me.  Still, I am feeling a little bit loopy now (it’s almost 8 pm in Berlin), but I don’t want to go to sleep too early or I’ll be up at 3 am.

It only took about 30 minutes to get from the airport to Schönhauser Allee, the stop nearest my pension, Bornholmer Hof.  A short walk later and I arrived.  Unfortunately, the front desk didn’t open for new guests until 2 pm, so I headed out for lunch and a stroll.  Back at the pension, however, I discovered that while I thought I had made a reservation, I only had an inquiry.  The good news was that they could put me up for the first two nights.  The bad news was that I would have to find somewhere else to stay for the last two.

This isn’t the only mistake I’ve made with reservations on this trip.  I can’t find the reservation confirmation from the Reichstag, and I have a sneaky suspicion that I didn’t follow up and lost it.  This spring semester was more hectic than usual.

The room is nice, it overlooks a kindergarten playground, that’s quiet now.  All I hear are occasional chirping birds.  It’s in the back courtyard (of two) surrounded by trees.  I didn’t have any trouble finding a private room in a hostel for the last two nights, and even as the slightly higher price, I’m still under half the state-allowable maximum per day for hotels in Berlin.

The first day I arrive, I try to counter the jet lag by spending as much time out of doors as possible.  The sunlight helps the body clock readjust, so I just started walking down Schönhauser Allee.  I had a couple of goals:  find the hostel I’ll be staying at with the students starting Saturday, find some places I could take them to lunch, see where the bank ATMs and drug stores were etc.  It was a little harder than I expected to find the hostel.  The outside service provider booked us at the Pfefferbett Hostel, which is in the back of this complex of buildings called Pfefferberg, which includes several outdoor cafés and a theater.  I wrote the students tonight reminding them that they need to be comfortable carrying their suitcases up stairs, since there are two in that complex that we’ll need to take.

My father was born in a building about a block away, so I went for a short walk and found it. The first time I saw it (in 1998), it was a run-down shell.  Then in 2007, it was being gentrified.  Now it has an atelier on the ground floor.  The mailman was making a delivery, so I followed him in.  I have photos of my grandmother and father in the courtyard out back, and I wanted to see what it looked like now.

I also noticed several Stolpersteine – stumbling stones – in front of the building.  This is a really interesting private memorial enterprise that began in Germany and is spreading to all of Europe.  People investigate who lived in their home or apartment building before the Nazis came to power and then identify what happened to the Jewish tenants.   After documenting the person(s) the information is sent to the artist who designs a simple brass plaque that lists the name, year of birth, and what happened to them.  It is a public-driven memorial project.

My great grandmother’s name wasn’t on any of the Stolpersteine, but I would have been shocked if it had been.  She moved out of that apartment during the 1930s, and lived with my great aunt and uncle in Charlottenburg.  If any place in Berlin has a marker for her, it would be her apartment on Sybelstraße.  She left Nazi Germany in the fall of 1938, returning to Poland, where she was trapped and later murdered.

I ended up walking all the way down to Alexanderplatz, which is when I realized that I had forgotten to bring the pad of paper to take notes at the archives tomorrow when I go to do my research.  I must really be losing my memory.  I bought a new one in the mall.

After about four hours of walking I stopped for some coffee before heading back to the pension.  I think all together, I’ve walked more than five hours today.  I think that’s enough.  Tomorrow, it’s off to Dahlem to the Geheime Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (the Secret State Archive of Prussian Cultural Heritage in order to read their files on a particular student who attended the University of Breslau in the 1840s.