Saturday, November 8, 2014

Berlin: Day Four

We started our day at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, originally consecrated in 1895 and named by Kaiser Wilhelm II in honor of his grandfather. It was irreparably damaged in a bombing raid in WWII and a modern church has been constructed in four buildings clustered around the ruins. The 1963 construction is undergoing renovation. The figure of Jesus is made of tombak, a metal with which we hadn't been familiar.

We next visited one of 16 atomic bomb shelters constructed in Berlin in the 1970s. It was intended to house 3600 people for two weeks and there were rooms designed to count people through peepholes so that no more than the allotted number could enter the shelter itself. It would have been insanely cramped and claustrophobic if ever used, not to mention that the 16 shelters would only have housed 1% of Berlin's population. There were no mirrors so as to discourage suicide and deprive the berserk of potential weapons. The kitchen in the photo would serve 1800 people. Two of the four well water pumps were left as manually operated ones to provide the opportunity for exercise or to vent pent up anger.

After a civilized lunch, a visit to the Kathe Kollwitz museum and some shoes-off time at the hotel, we returned to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an evocative city block near the Brandburg Gate. Our first evening we walked through in the dark. The terrain undulates across the field, so that the blocks vary greatly in height to maintain only slight variations on the visual surface. Jewish people had been deeply woven into the life of Berlin for centuries. Perhaps 10,000 live there now.

For our final dinner in Berlin, we went for sausages - good ones. We were encouraged by the warm smell of a wood fire and sausages being grilled. We weren't disappointed.

We also returned to the Brandenburg Gate to check out the festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The balloons lined 10 miles out of the more than 25 miles of death strip that once kept East Germans out of the west. Tonight it was the scene of a party with balloons marking the path of the Wall.

All along the path of the wall, large screens played out scenes from the time when the wall separated families and destinies: scenes like an East German official saying, "If people don't respect our borders, they will taste our bullets" and footage showing the wide "no man's land" on the east side of the wall laced with barbed wire and guards on both sides lobbing tear gas canisters at each other.

At Checkpoint Charlie or Potsdamer Platz it is hard to believe that 25 years ago you would be staring at a wall dividing a divided city in a divided country and that shortly before that era you would be standing in the center of capital that, to use a term often repeated on explanatory signage throughout the city, was at the heart of a period of "madness."

Friday, November 7, 2014

Berlin: Day Three

A whole area of the Pergamon Museum was just closed - until 2019 - the area housing the famous Pergamon Altar, for which the museum is named. Thank goodness! Otherwise, we'd really be suffering from museum overload. There was enough jaw-dropping material remaining to keep us fully engaged. We've included a scant sampling with no real detail (because we're not taking notes, sorry!).

King Nebuchadnezzar built a massive processional way and entrance gate for the city of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate, around 575 BC. Ishtar is a Babylonian goddess of some sort. This was one of eight gates. Impressive.
This mihrab or Islamic prayer niche is, we would guess, ten or twelve feet tall. It is, of course, the focal point for prayer and certainly creates an impression conducive to sublime meditation.
This is the earliest known example of writing that is not cuneiform. It is a Semitic writing that is the ancestor of Greek, Arabic, and Roman writing.
In the Neues Museum, next to the Pergamon, there are a few "must see" objects. One of them is a late Bronze Age (probably around 1000 to 800 BC) hammered gold cone shaped hat filled with power enhancing knowledge, like a 19 year calendar that successfully ties together the solar and lunar calendars. There are four such hats discovered to date, although cone shaped magical hats are apparently known in a number of cultures.

For a change of pace, we visited the East Side Gallery, an area of the Berlin Wall covered with street art. "The Kiss" between Gorbachev and Honecker is a classic. It was a little more difficult making the trip to see this than expected because one of the train systems was closed due to a strike. Oh, well.

After our daytime adventures, we headed to Gendarmenmarkt and Fassenbender & Rauch who bill themselves as the largest chocolatier in the world. Upstairs is a cafe where all of the menu items incorporate chocolate. Some menu items are more successful than others, but we thoroughly enjoyed our pre-concert dinner.

(Full room)

After dinner we walked over to the Konzerthaus to hear Ivan Fischer conducting the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in Schubert's "Great" Symphony in C Major. Much to our surprise, this was a symphony in the round with audience members interspersed among the orchestra on the floor of the hall. We spoke with the violinist behind us and learned that this was, in fact, the first time they had ever done such a thing. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. We certainly did, although - as one might expect - the balance of instruments was tilted towards whoever sat closest to you. We got a lot of double bass and first violin. Of course, the antiphonal effect was amazing. Fischer gave a talk before each movement and responded to comments on social media at the conclusion. This was all lost on us since it was in German. Directly in front of us, in the press section, a woman was doing what - for want of a better term - we'd call automatic drawing. She had large sheets of paper on her lap and moved a pencil around the paper in response to the music. At times it was as if she were frenetically bowing a phantom instrument. Unfortunately, she didn't know the score and would get caught up in something that didn't shift in time with the music. A strange phenomenon to add to our entertainment. All in all, a lot of fun.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Berlin: Day Two

Ah . . . the initial motivation for our trip to Berlin, an exhibit put together by the Danish National Museum, the British Museum and the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum here in Berlin. As photos were not permitted, words will have to suffice.

As we pointed out in our post from L'Anse Aux Meadow, the Vikings have been reappraised in recent years. They are no longer seen by scholars as merely bloodthirsty debauchers, pillagers, rapists and all-around scoundrels. That was apparently the norm in those days and, in any case, it was their enemies who wrote their history. They are now recognized as having had a well-established and capable society that held sway over a very considerable area for a few hundred years.

They came to control Ladoga in present day Russia and were invited by the Russian princes to establish control over what were fractious Russian tribes, founding what became the Rurik Dynasty of the Kievan Rus' (see our postings from Russia). They provided the guard to the Byzantine emperors (the Varangian Guard). They founded the first towns in Ireland (and, we're told, are responsible for the red-headed among the Irish). They, as we all know, established at least one base camp in North America. And, without the Vikings, how could Wagner have written The Ride of the Valkyries? Need we say more?

By the way, we do have one correction to a prior post from Newfoundland. We reported that, according to our Parks Canada interpreter, only one metal Viking helmet had ever been unearthed. We saw three in the exhibit, although we can confirm that they did not have horns. There was one skull with teeth filed down to provide a fearsome impression, but that's not unique among the world's peoples. There were also a lot of swords, including Ulfberht swords. These Frankish swords were the best money could buy in the 9th century and were favored by the Vikings. Sometimes their enemies would dig up the graves of Viking warriors just to have the best in modern weaponry.

You just might think there's a conspiracy to bring the Vikings back to full respectability or perhaps mount a campaign to take over the world in their name when you realize that something you use every day is named after the king who united the Danish tribes and converted them to Christianity. The Bluetooth logo is a combination of the runes used to create the initials of none other than Harald Bluetooth (died 985).

We went next door to the museum built on the site of Gestapo headquarters to become immersed in true evil. The Topographie Des Terrors demands a lot of reading and studying seemingly countless photographs documenting the rise of Hitler and the SS. It is horrifying to see photograph after photograph of both cheering crowds and of people lined up for processing or execution or detention, middle-aged men in suits, some portly and some thin, with their arms raised facing a wall or of village women and children tied to ropes held casually by soldiers pausing for a photo op. A lot of people were making their way patiently and soberly through the exhibits. There were groups of school children and a few foreigners, but mostly Germans reading intently. It makes you wonder whether the rest of us will continue to remember the lessons of the twentieth century.

In front of the Terror museum a block long section of the Berlin Wall has been preserved and we found a preserved East German guard tower near Potsdamer Platz. One grim period followed another, although we are beginning to find opportunities for humor in thinking about the division of the city and of the country until just 25 years ago. In comparison, it is a lesser wound to heal. Nonetheless, the partition of Germany was certainly not a time to recall with affection.

Down the street is Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the occupation. It was a frightening place in those days with incredible anxiety on both sides. Many Germans died trying to escape to the west over the wall and this was one of the few ways to make it through without being killed.

The Currywurst Museum is a short walk from Checkpoint Charlie. It is a delightful celebration of a very popular street food. What, you may ask, is currywurst? In brief, it is slices of sausage topped with a tomato/curry sauce that you eat with a tiny fork off a paper plate. It's quite delicious. The museum cleverly intertwines stealth history lessons in their kitchy presentation.
It seems that currywurst was invented during the Russian blockade of West Berlin, during the time of hardship when provisions of any kind were hard to come by and cigarettes were the currency. A housewife experimented with tomato sauce and the British curry powder no German had a use for and ended up opening a small chain of currywurst stands.
To round out the day, we made our way to KaDeWe ("caw day vay"), the famous Berlin department store. The food emporium is on the sixth floor and has a series of little cafe bars. We perched on the stools at one to rest ourselves and enjoy some cappuccinos and a lovely German pastry before taking the U-Bahn to the stop near our hotel. So far, Berlin has been living up to its reputation as a dynamic and accessible city filled with a fascinating mix of people. We're enjoying being part of that mix.


Berlin: Day One

At long last, Berlin! Having moved from Europe in 1988, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had never visited Berlin. Newly inspired, we decided to take a few days to correct our oversight. And, what better time than the 25th anniversary of German reunification. Here in all it's nighttime glory is the Brandenburg Gate. Built at the end of the 18th century, victorious armies marched through it up through 1945 when the Soviet Army captured Berlin. The chariot and horses were, along with much of Berlin, destroyed in the war. Fortunately, the molds were found and new statutes cast by the Russians.

As we leave Berlin, there will be major celebrations and we noticed large stages being constructed on the side of the gate away from Unter Den Linden. We got a good look at the extent of it from the Reichstag Dome.

Built at the end of the 19th century, the Reichstag is best known outside of Germany as having been burnt down. In 1933, an arsonist caused major damage to the building and the Nazis used the incident as an excuse to pass very repressive legislation that helped them consolidate power. They rebuilt it, it was destroyed in the war and has been rebuilt yet again. This time, a British architect helped them spiff it up and create a major tourist attraction by adding an amazing glass dome. It features a moving sun shield, a ten meter wide hole in the top for ventilation and a mirrored cone in a passive solar system, and symbolizes the principle that the people are above the government.

The Bundestag, of course, meets in the Reichstag and this is their debating chamber. We, the people, certainly have a dizzying view of democracy at work.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Across to New Brunswick and the Bay of Fundy

We decided to take the Confederation Bridge from PEI to New Brunswick. It's an impressive 8 miles long and was built for a billion dollars in the early 1990s. Before it was named, people from PEI referred to it as "the fixed link," for obvious reasons. The name "Confederation Bridge" honors the leading role PEI played in getting the various British colonies north of the US to organize themselves into what is now the independent Dominion of Canada.

Once over the bridge, we made a beeline for Hopewell Rocks, where the difference in tide levels in the Bay of Fundy can be easily seen among some really interesting rock formations. Yes, those are people down there in the first photo. We then returned the following morning to snap the second photo at high tide on our way down along the coast of the bay. Of course, we're used to big tides and those at the Bay of Fundy vary in size just like everywhere else. The ebb and flow of water always creates interesting terrain.

And, we did enjoy walking among the rock formations at low tide. It was like we were in the land of the giants.

The mud flats also looked pretty amazing from the vantage point above the bay, oozy and plastic and glistening under an ominous sky.

But, let's face it - some things in life are underwhelming. We made a reservation at a hotel right along the river in Moncton where you can see the "tidal bore." We had read about it and been told that people can surf on the wave created when the tide reverses and, basically, pushes the river upstream. So, we stood out on the deck of the hotel overlooking the river in good time to see this effect, joining a man from St. John's, Newfoundland, who had watched it a number of times before. It was fortunate we were talking with him, because we might otherwise have missed it. Alas, it was like waiting for the big parade and finding that only the dance schools showed up to march in it. We're told that sometimes there is a bigger effect. That's okay. Of course, it was kind of fun in its own way and it was a beautiful brisk evening. We were also feeling good about the meal we had just come from in neighboring Dieppe, even deeper into francophone New Brunswick. As we enjoyed our crepes francaise followed by our dessert crepes, we couldn't help but overhear bits of the bewildering conversation at the table next to us between two twenty-something Acadian women. To us, it sounded like the sort of secret language twins sometimes adopt. It hopscotched among what we recognized as somewhat standard French to a sort of French patois to perfectly accented standard English. We later noticed in watching TV that the news anchors spoke a proper Parisian French, but the reporters did not. Fascinating.

From Moncton, we drove back to Hopewell Cape for the photo of the mostly submerged rocks and then went into Fundy National Park for a few hikes.

The signage said that in the time since the Park Service had built the boardwalk and viewing platform that got us this far into the bog, they had pulled two moose out of the muck at this spot. When the 4 meter thick peat decays, it has the same effect as quicksand.

Once we got to St. John, we checked in at our hotel and found that because of multiple conventions in town they were fully booked and had decided to upgrade us to the Presidential Suite. If only it were the Four Seasons, rather than Holiday Inn Express!

Buoyed by our good fortune, we walked downtown to take in the farmer's market and find a place to eat dinner. The market claims to be the oldest continually operated market in North America. We were appropriately skeptical, as 1876 didn't exactly impress us. It was, nonetheless, a very agreeable place. One of the vendors had us try dulse from Grand Manan island. It's a dried seaweed that tastes like an exceptionally mild nori. Jim enjoyed it.

As shadows lengthened on the day, we stumbled on St. John's second international sculpture symposium. They brought in eight sculptors from Europe, Asia and Canada who created work onsite for the city's "International Sculpture Trail." We arrived just as they were finishing up. These were our favorites.
The next morning we crossed the border again, re entering a more familiar world with more traffic but fewer moose, ending a fabulous adventure.