Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Streets of Berlin

Sabzi = yummy

It wouldn’t be a summer weekend in Berlin without outdoor gatherings. This past Saturday was particularly busy. After grocery shopping and doing a load of laundry, I went to the library to finish up a microfiche project I had been working on. Here in Berlin I work mostly at the Staatsbibliothek Haus Unter den Linden, the older “house” of the state library located on the capital’s historic thoroughfare. When the weather is nice I will often take my lunch outside to eat it in front of the Humboldt Universität buildings next door. I watch the students and the tourists and the double-decker hop-on/hop-bus city-tour buses.

Yesterday I decided I needed a walk while eating my afternoon snack, so I grabbed my shades and set off down Unter den Linden. I walked east toward the Brandenburger Tor, about 4 blocks away, passing the Mercedes-Benz Gallerie and numerous souvenir shops. I had finished the really yummy cherry tart I had picked up at the Bäckerei that morning before I made it to the big sandstone gate (built 1788-1791), so I crossed the street to amble back to the library while eating my apple. On the other side of the street were 12-15 people demonstrating with signs and flags, asking for the United Nations to sanction Syria for its reprehensible and violent oppression of opponents to the regime (not to mention innocent refugees). The classmate who sat next to me in lecture my first year of medical school is from Syria, and she often posts on facebook about the political situation there. I told the demonstrators (mostly of Middle Eastern descent) that she and I were supportive and wished them much luck. I went back with my camera after the library had closed two hours later, but they were gone.

So I road home a slightly different route and was reminded by some banners that the FIFA Women’s Soccer World Championship began this weekend. It opened in Frankfurt am Main Friday night with a big riverside spectacle with singers and a laser light show. The teams are playing in nine cities around Germany, with the US women facing off against North Korea in Dresden on Tuesday. At least one of my roommates has a television, so I will try to watch the game. I don't think I'm up for watching the match alone in a pub, although I've done it before.

The creepy mannequin heads want to
sell you things, like Panama hats and
rainbow-colored woven headbands.
If I had reached the Brandenburg Gate, I might have noticed the enormous Christopher-Street-Day parade in the Tiergarden on the other side. As it was, I was headed for the Bergmanstraßenfest Kreuzberg jazzt! On account of working at the library, I had missed the American Gospel concert the church I'm attending here had hosted Saturday afternoon. But when I arrived in the early evening, the streets were still packed with vendors and people out to enjoy the four stages. I bought some sabzi for dinner and then wandered around. I was tempted by the colorful wrap-around skirts and beautiful beaded jewelry but kept my money in my pocket this time. 

As I was headed home I came upon a trio of improv comedians on one of the stages and stopped to listen. They played the sorts of games I've heard in the States, getting suggestions from the audience, tagging in, and collecting sentences on pieces of paper. In one scene, they staged an "opera" about Curry 36, the famous Imbiss (quick snack shop) near my apartment; although it ended with the protagonist succumbing to "der Virus" [sic--EHEC is caused by the Salmonella bacterium], I may try to nab a currywurst there before I move. Below are photos I snapped of the guy in the vest promoting an open-air swinger club while the woman in the troupe stood behind him providing the gesticulations (and crotch readjustments). I also realize now that when they were discussing going to "the CSD" they weren't talking about the Christian Social Democrats but the gay parade! Even while understanding only 85-90% of what they were saying (or singing), I laughed so hard I got a headache and my cheeks hurt. Good times, Kreuzberg, good times! I'll miss you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Popping over to Preston

This past week I traveled from Berlin to Preston, England, to attend a conference on the history of food and drink. I had originally thought I might present some of my current research, but the deadline to submit an abstract came much too early for me to get a handle on my dissertation research. But I figured I was close enough to "pop over" for a visit, which is how I found myself on an U-Bahn, a Berlin city bus, an airport shuttle bus, two Dutch (KLM) Airlines planes, a Birmingham city bus, and a Virgin train. Tuesday evening I flew through Amsterdam and spent the night in Birmingham before arriving just in time for the conference to begin Wednesday morning. I was reminded that the English apparently like their public transit the way they like their sports: complicated and incomprehensible to outsiders and newcomes (think: tennis, cricket). Even at the airport there are few transit maps, there are no signs or announcements on the buses, and you can't read the stop signs as you go whizzing by. Thankfully fellow passengers changed my 5-pound note and rang my stop for me. The bus driver was singularly unsympathetic, even while I carefully examined each coin on both sides in order to drop exact change in the till. (They still have shillings and pences, remember, not the Euros I'm used to.)

The hostel in Birmingham was literally a bright spot in an otherwise questionable neighborhood of warehouses and empty buildings. The insides were painted in multiple colors, and the reception desk/bar was hung with strings of lights and star-shaped lanterns. I spent just 7,5 hours there, so the only photos I got are of the light switches, my technology fetish for the trip. The one on the left is a stiff, bronze-colored lever; the one in the middle is shaped like a joystick (it only went up and down, though). On the right is an example of the power outlets. Alas, my "universal adapter" turned out to be not quite so universal, and I was without electrical power for my laptop for the duration of the trip.

Preston is a former cotton-milling and -recycling town and the county seat of Lancashire*, a northwestern region famous for Liverpool (The Beatles) and Manchester (a capital of the Industrial Revolution; also, I hear they play football there).** Today Preston is home to the University of Central Lancashire, which is one of the larger employers in the area and attracts mostly adult and commuter students. Because really, what young people want to live in a formerly industrialized provincial town? There's lots of brick: brick rowhouses, brick warehouses, brick chimney stacks. The Travelodge I stayed at is located in an old brick warehouse from 1895; in the courtyard is one of only three chimney stacks left, the rest having been torn down a couple of decades ago in a fit of heritage-unconscious civic improvement.

Above you can see the building that houses the county government; I added the smoke so you could see what it might have looked like in the nineteenth century. The lead image is a close-up of the memorial shown below, in front of the (former) Corn Exchange (corn = grain). The text reads: "In Lune Street, Preston, four workers were shot and killed by the military during the General Strike of 1842. / Several thousand Preston workers were demonstrating against wage cuts, and for the 'charter' of democratic rights." Many were shot and four were killed. There is also a poem:

"Remember, remember, people of proud Preston/ That progress towards justice and democracy/ Has not been achieved without great sacrifice.
"Remember, remember, people of proud Preston/ To defend vigorously the rights given to you./ Stribe to enhance the rights of those who follow."

And a dedication: "This plaque is dedicated by the trade unions of Preston to the memory of all workers worldwide who are killed, injured, suffer ill health or detriment as a consequence of work. / Remember the dead, fight for the living."

Interestingly enough, a local told us the memorial is wrong-ways around from the action. The army actually shot from left to right, and until some road construction a few years ago, you could still see the bullet holes in buildings to the right.

The weather was--surprise!--cool and rainy. Wednesday evening there was a total eclipse of the moon, and I had every intention of looking for it. Unfortunately, by the time we got out of dinner it was raining; and the morning news said much of the sky had been too cloudy any way. The rainbow amid the rain was, in fact, a faint rainbow on the way to a really excellent tapas dinner Thursday evening. Then, while walking back to the hotel in the drizzle, we saw a complete rain-bow! As if that weren't awesome enough, there was even a faint double rainbow, with a short stretch reaching up from the lefthand side. None of the photographs I took do the sight justice, however.

Speaking of photographs, I'll leave you with this one, which I borrowed from Yahoo! It was Royal Week at the Ascot Racetrack, and Thursday was Ladies' Day, which means they all came out in their fanciest or most flamboyant millinery--even Amber, who is sporting the first-ever horse hat haut couture in Ascot's 300-year history. Friday I read in a free paper from Birmingham that at one point, fisticuffs broke out among eight men, who were definitely soused and who may have been fighting over one of the "ladies." Then I hopped on two Virgin trains, two KLM planes, a Berlin city bus, and the U-Bahn and finally arrived back at my Wohnung in Berlin.

Although the trip took time away from my library research, I am glad that I went. Conferences remind me that grades and a dissertation are not why I went to graduate school: rather, it's the unique and privileged opportunity to meet interesting people, learn new things, and discuss ideas with them. Preferably while enjoying good food and drink, of course!

* The emblem of the University of Central Lancashire is two red roses, like from the War of Roses. I keep the Houses of York and Lancashire separate by thinking that opposites attract: "York" has fewer letters than "Lancashire," but "white" has more letters than "red." Really, it makes sense in my mind.

** Wikipedia informs me that both Liverpool and Manchester were made into their own municipal units in 1974.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A window onto my world in Leipzig and Berlin

Editor's note: This post records some of the sights and sounds of my life in Germany. In Berlin I discovered a multicultural radio station broadcast just a block from my apartment in Kreuzberg. Right click on the link to open a little musical accompaniment!

One of the things I will remember most about my apartment in Leipzig is the windows; I mentioned them in that post from Leipzig that published itself before I could add any pictures (or edit it! Click here for the cleaned-up version). I found the old wooden-framed ones in my bedroom quaint with their knobs (below left), and the newer ones in the bathroom (below center) and kitchen that you can either tilt or hinge open are stereotypically European in their functionality and simple design (Americans, think: IKEA). I was also tickled by the windows in the big double doors to the apartments, which opened inward behind a fancy metal grill (below right); this is how I paid my landlady early on a Saturday morning, while she was still in her bathrobe.


As I mentioned, my bedroom faced the street. I had no internet, no television, no radio—and on weekends no roommate, either. So I would listen to the “street radio.” At home we joke that our cat “watches tv” out the windows. In Leipzig the windows were my radio: while eating breakfast and fixing lunch in the morning, or while reading in the armchair on a Sunday afternoon, I listened to the cars driving over the cobblestones, the bikes rattling by, the sounds from the basketball court in the park, the clanking and rattling of the construction down the street, and the rain.

Here you can see the cat in our old apartment, watching Cat TV Channel 1: it carried the comedy show "Squirrels Go Nuts!" and his favorite soap opera, "Leaves in the Wind." Channel 2, in the bedroom, carried Pedestrian News and Car Chase. At our not-so-new house he can still watch "Squirrels Go Nuts!" from his perch above my desk in the study; the picture window out front shows bicycle derbies and the drama "Men at Work."
In Berlin my room again faces the street, but on the second floor instead of the fifth, and on a major east-west artery instead of an out-of-the-way T-intersection. Because there are no curtains, I have to dress in the bathroom. The other downside of these old windows is that they are binary: either open or closed. There is no "I would like a little fresh air while I sleep" setting. In Leipzig I was able to latch the panes to each other so the wind wouldn't blow them into each other, but I can't do that here. So I have to choose between traffic noise or getting baked by the morning sun. Mostly I leave a window open day and night. Immediately below me is a cafe, so as I sit at the desk the sound of utensils on plates and snatches of conversation waft up to me. Sometimes they even have live jazz music in the evening. 

Because I am closer to the street, the windows are also *my* television. And yesterday, the street was overtaken by a parade as part of the Karneval der KulturenOrganized every year since 1996 for Pentecost weekend (Pfingstwochende; Monday is a holiday here, too!), the KdK includes a street fair, dance parties, and a Carnival-style parade. In the old women's magazines I've been reading, Pfingsten was to Germans what Memorial Day is to Americans: a family holiday that marked the start of summer and vacation season. In the 1920s there were even Pentecost sales! Fewer Germans are religious anymore, but really, the KdK has nothing to do with tongues of flame or the Holy Spirit. Rather, it's an international festival that takes advantage of the holiday weekend.

Friday night and Saturday evening, after the library closed, I went to the Straßenfest, which happened to be just north of my apartment, on my route home. Sunday afternoon I also met up with a German graduate student and some of his friends to watch some of the parade. The Umzug began at 12:30pm, but the first float only reached my block at just before 3pm; the last one came by about 9:30pm. Of the nearly 100 groups participating, there was particularly strong representation from Latin American countries and clubs. The floats and costumes were some more, some less professional-looking. There were samba dancers, jugglers, guys on stilts. Probably the funniest moment was when a man wearing one of those costumes that sits on your shoulders--in the shape of an ugly magician with a tattered cloak--"charged" the children on the sidelines, to their horror and delight. Talk about sensory overload!

My first impression was the sheer number of people (1,5 million, according to the media). If you found a place to sit or stand, the people-watching was excellent: couples of various kinds, Teenies in pairs or small packs, fathers carrying children on their shoulders, mothers trying to maneuver strollers. All shapes and colors, every manner of hair style, lots of "ethnic" clothing, many different languages being spoken. But it was hard to go anywhere, especially since I was carrying a big backpack, and I worried about pickpockets. After a while even the most charitable of human beings could turn into a misanthrope, due to the overwhleming proximity of so many people. People bumping into you who are sweaty, and smoking, and drinking beers from around the world.

Of tastes there were many: I ate a Moroccan lamb-duck pita; a Bulgarian sausage; Ghanian vegetable-rice-and-beans; and one night, an American frozen yogurt cone, because it was being touted as something foreign, new, and "a real dairy product" (as opposed to something made from a powder, water, and air).

At the stands one could buy batik dresses, sombreros, jewelry, wooden figurines, absinth--even Berlin Underwear (local, handmade, one-of-a-kind underwear for 15 Euros = $21.50 each). About the only thing missing was knitted socks. I guess someone forgot to invite the German Omas. (Come to think of it, there weren't many in the crowds, either....)

Finally, the sounds: at the street fair there were several stages, but many of the stands played music too. Waiting in line at the Afro Küche (Afro Kitchen) Sunday we heard a Cuban trio playing dance music. Many of the floats either piped music or had small bands or were followed by drum corps. My last (and lasting) memory of the Karnival der Kulturen will probably be the thudding techno beat of the sidewalk party in front of my apartment building. The boom-a-boom-a-boom-a started coming through my window around noon, and I expected it would go on past midnight. As they say about my neighborhood, the nights are long in Kreuzberg. However, the party broke up about 10:30pm, and thereafter came the sounds of the clean-up: the engine of the occasional truck and the clink and clank of the empty glass bottles that enterprising individuals with those little shopping carts hadn't already collected for the Pfand (return money).

Last fall, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the head of her party, Horst Seehofer (CSU), declared, "Multiculturalism is dead." It isn't enough to live side-by-side with one another, they said; we need to support common goals and principles (in German, Leitkultur). But the organizers of the Karnival der Kulturen beg to differ: Germany, and its capital city especially, are living examples of what's wonderful about recognizing our different cultures: the sights, the tastes, the sounds of diversity (spice of life, and all that). And after all, what says "Berlin" more than an enormous, international, outdoor party?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Berlin: a symphony of old and new

Can you see the little white
booth under the photo of
the Soviet soldier?
I’ve been in Berlin less than a week and so far my impression has been traffic, tourist spots, construction, and … marble. To begin with, Wednesday, on my way to drop off the rental car I used to drive me and my stuff from Leipzig, I made sure to go through Checkpoint Charlie (West to East, in case you're curious). To the left is the photo I snapped while at a red light on Friedrichstrasse just to the south. I visited the museum on an earlier trip to the capital, but they have since remodeled it.

Pergamon Museum
Thursday was a holiday (Ascension Day), and since the libraries were closed, I went to a museum instead: the Pergamon. Once you get around the construction, the big draw there is the marble reliefs of the Gigantomachy (the battle between the giants and the gods) from a second-century temple in current-day Turkey (below, left). I spent most of my time looking at the special exhibit on the destroyed, discovered, and re-destroyed artwork from the Tell Halaf palace in present Syria (below, right). The exhibit gave extensive biographical details of Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946), the Jewish diplomat-turned-archeologist who financed the excavations and a private museum known for its curious human-animal statuary. Unfortunately, the statues were too large and the collection of small artifacts was too numerous to move either during World War II, and both suffered from Allied bombings in late 1944. After the war, the museum’s staff ended up on the wrong side of the Wall. Because the remains of the museum were “foreign property,” the DDR left them lying in a cellar for four decades. After reunification, a team tried to salvage what they could from the 27,000 fragments they spread out on wooden pallets in three warehouses. Amazingly, using photographs and trial-and-error, they were able to reconstruct 90% of the collection! On the right is Oppenheim's favorite piece, a female figure that once sat at the entrance to a tomb. He thought she had an other-worldly smile.

I was mostly tired out at this point, but I did walk through the other wing of the Pergamon long enough to get a photograph with part of the Ischar Gate and to note that the ancient Babylonians were very creative jewelry makers. 

(To the right I am experimenting with the self-portrait function of my digital camera. The headphones are for the audio guide. I'm actually standing in front of a side panel of the gate, which is peaking into the frame in the upper left. These are enormous walls of colorful glazed bricks with animal motifs--but they're even smaller than the main gate, which was too large to reconstruct in the museum!)
Friday was my first work day, at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin (State Library). First I had to register with the local authorities; an hour and a half later, I headed to the building in Potsdamer Strasse (under construction). It turned out that I needed to be at the other building, in Unter den Linden, so on my way I rode my bicycle past the Holocaust Memorial and the Reichstag (the dome in the background, below left) and under the Brandenburg Gate (below right, seen from the east). The whole library building is a construction site but resolutely open for the users who can brave the tarps and the hallway that smells of urine! More on that in a future post.

Because no books are delivered on Saturdays, I worked from home that day, and because the afternoon was warm and sunny, I decided to take a walk to/through one of the cemeteries in my neighborhood. Although there were some family members out tending to their plots, many of the graves are in disrepair. This is largely because when the Wall went up, it separated the cemetery from its parish, which could not maintain it. There are many interesting markers, such as the statue from the eighteenth century (below left), now protected by a canopy. The wall graves are often ornate hunks of marble, stone, or occasionally brick. The most unique tombstone I found is recent, from 2004: it consists of fist-sized marble balls, each painted with a number or letter, on metal rods, creating a bead effect. I also made the unexpected discovery of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s final resting place (below right); in Leipzig DH and I visited the house he died in.

Sunday I went to church at the Passionskirche, a dying urban church that still uses a traditional, largely sung liturgy. The sanctuary was surprisingly different: instead of marble it is composed of brick and whitewash, with mosaic and painted-wood decorations. If I go back for a concert, I will post a photo.