Monday, January 28, 2013

Germany North: Berlin & Hamburg

Editor's note: Do you know the joke with the punchline, "Why the long paws?" Well, if you've been concerned that I've been spending all my time working and that is why there haven't been any more blog posts since I've been in Germany there are two reasons. The first was a prolonged period with intermittent internet access, and the second was that when I wasn't working, I was having fun; and when I wasn't doing either of those two things, I was sleeping--not composing blog posts! Hence the long pause. Here begins the rest of the series on what I've been up to over here.

I was recently in Berlin for the fourth time. It felt…familiar. You know, familiar for being a big city in a foreign country. I am very glad I have been lucky enough to travel internationally as much as I have. I was thinking, if finances allow, every young person should travel—at the very least as a tourist for a few days here and there, at the most living somewhere for at least a month. (That’s barely enough time to get used to a new place, discover its gems, etc.) The idea would be to literally broaden his or her horizons and to help against a certain American exceptionalism and/or provincialism, especially if s/he can feel at home. Of course, the problem with feeling at home in more than one place in the world is that no matter where you are, you feel a little homesick.

Sailing ship on top of a pole in Hamburg Rathausplatz.  I imagine sailors often suffered homesickness.
I had never been in Berlin in the winter before, and unfortunately, I don’t have any photographs from my few days there, because it was rainy. But the shopping district along the Kurfurstendamm was all decorated with lights for Christmas. (I arrived 2. Jan.) This time I was staying in a different apartment and working in a different archive, but otherwise the city was much the same as when I left it at the end of July 2011. The same yellow subway cars rang the same “doors closing” chime. There were friendly faces at my old church in Kreuzberg. There was even the familiar detritus of Sylvester (New Year’s Eve) here and there on the ground. And yet Berlin was not the same. The library where I spent most of my time that summer, the Staatsbibliothek Haus 1 Unter den Linden, is closed for renovations. (It was already a construction zone when I was there.) Friedrichstraβe, where I used to ride my bike from Kreuzberg up to the library past Check Point Charlie, was all torn up for the installation of a subway line. And I noticed the church had a new intern. (The previous one was very friendly with me.) I had been afraid that I would not find the needles in the haystack of the new archive, but it worked out so splendidly that I wished I had scheduled a whole week instead of just three days. There's always next time...

For the weekend I decided to visit a friend with a post-doc in Hamburg, just under two hours by train to the northwest. Hamburg was an entirely new city for me. Probably on account of the weather being so wet, I don’t have any particularly fond memories of it, but R.E. and I managed to have a good time nonetheless. I got in Friday evening in time for dinner, an episode of “Elementary,” and some internet time to plan our sightseeing.

Saturday we headed across town to BallinStadt, a museum about the immigration that happened through Hamburg’s harbor to other parts of the world, especially the United States. Consider it the reverse of Ellis Island. (Which, by the way, opened twice in 1890; it burned down the day after the first opening. Did you know that?) BallinStadt is named for the Hamburger Albert Ballin who worked with HAPAG in Hamburg and Lloyd in Bremen to make immigration more profitable for shipping companies. (A robber-baron type committed to the monarchy, he was so distraught at the November 9, 1918 revolution, that he committed suicide on the same day.)

The museum is set up in the few surviving buildings of what used to be a large complex (the three U-shaped halls with green roofs, above). The special exhibition hall was closed, but that was all right, because I thought that the main exhibit offered more than enough for a two-hour visit, and that the extra little bit of exhibit in the third building was superfluous. It was a pretty good museum with a variety of interesting things to look at, read, and listen to. The organizers took care to pull out representative characters from different points in immigration history, i.e. a democrat and failed revolutionary from 1848, a Jewish girl from a Russian shtetl in the Pale of Settlement in 1890, a boy from a working-class family who came over before WWI, and so one. They also discussed immigration not only to North America but also to South America. And there were activities for kids. We both noted that the translations to English were not 1:1, meaning not every sign in German was also rendered in English; and when they were, often the English version was shorter. Nevertheless, by reading around we were able to get all the information we needed.

We went to lunch in the Portuguese Quarter, at a little restaurant serving big pieces of quiche (see left). Next we walked down Deichstrasse, which has the city's oldest buildings, despite being the place where the great fire of 1842 broke out (Zum Brandanfang, below). The buildings are so old (back to the late 17th century) that some of them are listing, as you can see here. After that we visited the city center, including the Rathaus Square and a“Winter Wunderland” market that was still open on Epiphany weekend. We looked and smelled but did not buy.

Then it was home for a nap and dinner before making our last excursion, to Dialog im Dunkel (Dialog in the Dark). Apparently there are dozens of these museums around the world, but this was the first I had seen of the idea. It is a museum designed by blind individuals to give seeing visitors an experience of interacting with their environment with all of their senses except sight. (Incidentally, there’s a crass sort of joke I could make about how difficult it was to the find the building at the night—they need better signage!) Before the guided tour starts, you have to give up your glasses and watches and turn off your cell phones. They don’t want anything that might accidentally produce some light or a reflection. Everybody gets a white cane to use, and the group follows a guide through rooms that are set up as a park (with bridges!), a warehouse (for touching and smelling), a short “boat ride” in the harbor (complete with splashing water), and a sort of underwater musical adventure that involved lying on the floor to feel the vibrations. We practiced crossing the street to the sound of the clicker on the walk sign, and the whole thing ended an hour and a half later in the Dunkel Bar, where we bought drinks or snacks and realized how difficult it is (without experience) to tell coins apart by touch. Some of the Germans expressed surprise that even the Euro bills are different sizes, although any American who’s been over here probably noticed that fact second (first would have been their different colors). I enjoyed the visit, and we weren't "disabled" by our language skills.

Sunday morning I got up early to make my way to Dresden by way of a long layover in Berlin. I wanted to go to church with my friends, two of whom were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. I should have made my reservation for a later train, and didn't have time to get from south of the city back to the Hauptbahnhof, but the man in the couple has most of the time tables for the public transit system memorized, so he was able to tell me when my train would likely be coming through Südkreuz, and I caught it in time. Next stop: Dresden!

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