22 July 2013

Berlin

by Helen Eleasari

[Helen’s been a friend for a great number of years now, as readers of ROT will already know.  A few weeks ago, she wrote me that she and her daughter had just gotten back from a five-day visit to Berlin between Sunday, 16 June, and Friday, 21 June.  She commented off-handedly, “I remember your telling me that you were stationed in Berlin – isn't that right?”  It is, in fact—also as ROTters might recall (I’ve written about some of my experiences there often enough!).  I spent 2½ years between 1971 and 1974 in West Berlin—it was a divided city then—as a U.S. Army intelligence officer.  Needless to say, Cold War Berlin was vastly different from the 21st-century reunified city Helen and her daughter saw.  (For a comparison of “my” city with the one Helen and Rava visited, see “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009, and “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July 2009.) 

[Helen originally composed this journal in note form after her return to Tel Aviv, with truncated syntax and abbreviations which she asked me to expand and adjust.  (I checked with her whenever I had questions, so her intent was never altered.)  I also took the opportunity now and then to insert remarks for clarification, translation (both to and from German as well as Helen’s British usage), or just personal asides.  Those insertions are all enclosed in brackets so readers can distinguish my prose from Helen’s own.  (The dates in the headings below are when Helen composed each section of her journal.)  ~Rick]

*  *  *  *
Berlin today is 'just a big city' that tries not to be burdened by its past, a remark that might well be hindsight, because while we were in Berlin, My daughter Rava and I were too busy soaking up impressions and looking at things. We neither of us spoke to a single echt [it means ‘real’ ~Rick] Berliner. We neither of us spoke more than 3½ words of German . . . and I don't know why. Nor did anybody speak to us.

There are thousands of Israelis living and working in Berlin. We didn't meet a one of them, or any Israeli tourists, except for one time in a subway station poring over a map, and then, strange coincidence, the same family appeared at Corroborree in Sony Center. I said nothing to Rava, who'd not noticed.

Our hotel was in a Muslim area, or apparently a largely Muslim area. Whether these were descendants of former gastarbeiter [‘guest workers’—immigrant laborers] or not, I couldn't say because they all spoke German.

By the way – at no time was public transportation crowded, nor were the streets traffic-clogged, not even at rush-hour. Alex explained to us that a lot of people had already gone on vacation – once the kids were out of school, the families take off. Out in the country, like on the way to Treptow and Potsdam, we saw enclaves of little vacation homes, each with its own patch of garden to which families come for a 'pastoral' summer. [These are sometimes called Grünstücke, “patches of green,” and often contain little more than a hut or lean-to surrounded by a large vegetable or flower garden where Germans spend a sunny afternoon or warm evening with a snack and a glass of tea, beer, or wine while they garden or just relax.  Some more substantial Grünstücke include houses in which the owners can spend a weekend or longer. ~Rick]

BERLIN PART I
23/6/2013

Here I am, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after the best night’s sleep I’ve had since we left for Berlin last Sunday [16 June].

Naturally (for me), I did not sleep a wink before leaving for airport at 0245 [that’s 2:45 a.m. in American—what we’d have called “oh dark thirty” in the army ~Rick]. Rava, who can sleep anywhere, immediately dove into a deep sleep on the plane for a couple of hours, so that by the time we got to our hotel I was quite literally reeling with exhaustion.

The Pension Galerie is on Hedemannstrasse, a quiet street . . . if you type in “pension galerie berlin” in a search engine, you’ll get to the site . . . then go to pix 58 & 59 on the photo gallery and you’ll see our room.

It was on the ground floor in the back of the building overlooking a courtyard into which the sun never penetrated. Given that it was blisteringly hot every day we were there – this was a very good deal as the room stayed cool and comfortable. Indeed, we were snug there and enough drawer space for five times as much luggage as we brought. Rava and I travel light.

Anyway, on arrival we were offered breakfast which we gratefully accepted . . . and then both of us fell into bed. I managed to sleep for a couple of hours, and then it was off exploring. We didn’t do much that first day – walked up to the Potsdamer Platz, a huge space dominated by the glass cupola of the Sony Center.

Deciding that a cup of coffee and a piece of cake were called for we trotted over the Artscafe down the block where sitting in a window alcove with delicious coffee and a piece of rhubarb (sorry!) streuselkuche [crumb cake in American] we looked down (or up) the Pariser Platz toward the Brandenburger Tor [the Brandenburg Gate] – Berlin’s indisputable signature landmark – gleaming goldenly in the sunlight.

We didn’t actually get there. I was too tired, and beside we had The Marriage of Figaro at the Komische Oper in the evening. We went back to the hotel, rested, then Rava went out in search of food, coming back with crispy duck, rice and Thai rolls.

Then off to the opera, a modern conception of Figaro with an incredibly inventive and saucily irreverent direction – Mozart would probably have loved it, but I found it a bit cluttered. The second half wasn’t quite so busy. The set was dominated by a huge square pillar which rose to reveal at least a cwt. of apples [that’s a hundredweight, equivalent to 112 lbs.]. Yes. Real ones. Why??? Original temptation of Eve??? And nobody related to them, except Susannah in passing. Never mind. All the really lovely bel canto arias are in the second half anyway so we just sat there and melted even more because musically and vocally it had sparkled from the first notes of the overture.

I woke up with a headache because of the down pillow – later changed to fiberfill – but it quickly cleared. Then off to the Berlin landmarks – the gate, the lovely Marienkirche [St. Mary’s Church] that miraculously escaped the World War II bombing that flattened most of Berlin, the Nikolaiviertel [Nicholas Quarter] which is now the only remnant of medieval Berlin – though most houses were 18th-and 19th-century.

Speaking of destruction, what characterizes Berlin is construction. Everywhere, but everywhere those huge cranes loom like a swarm of mantises – do they swarm? The whole center of the famed Unter den Linden is fenced off while they do something with the subway system.

From the Brandenburger Tor we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, but I didn't remember that until I looked at our pictures. That happened after I'd written this “Berlin diary.” I saw the series of shots I took, and realized I'd blocked it from memory.  The Holocaust Memorial is overwhelming, huge, obtrusive, ugly and shocking as it's meant to be. A huge oblong of nameless concrete 'tombstones' of different heights and thickness. You notice the first one of 2 cm. [a little over ¾ of an inch] thick, laid in the pavement, by chance. The narrow, uneven alleyways between the stones are claustrophobic. The associations come thick and fast, of ghettos, of the paths to the gas chambers, of depersonalization, of despoiled cemeteries, of despair, oppression. Not many people were there. We noticed young people dancing on top of one of the tombs. Children play on them, and that too is intentional.

Rava said, “Imagine all the people in those fancy apartments looking out of their windows at this. Bet they didn't anticipate the memorial when they bought them.”

No. But I couldn't feel for them.

In the afternoon Alex, a colleague of Rava’s who lives in Berlin, picked us up in his car and off we went to the Russian War Memorial at Treptow, the site of the former chancellery of the “1000-Year Reich” and other places most tourists don’t get to. He also fed us all kinds of info, for instance that while Berlin has a central mayor, the city is actually divided into several small towns, each with its own council and mayor!

Of all the things I saw in Berlin that memorial was the most moving. it’s a place of pilgrimage for Russians on May 9 [Victory Day in Russia and the former Soviet republics, celebrating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945] to this day.

It’s huge, little h, an epic place where in four mass graves in the center of an immense green lawn are buried the 7,000 Russian soldiers who fell in the battle for Berlin [called the Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation by the Soviet Union, 16 April-2 May 1945]. It’s anchored at each end by an immense and very fine granite statue: a grieving Mother Russia at one end and her son at the other – about a kilometer [a little over 1000 yards] away at the opposite end of the lawn.

The entrance is two immense triangular cenotaphs [an empty tomb, a monument in honor of people whose remains lie somewhere else], each with its own grieving soldier. There’s nothing abstract here, just naked sorrow and – as I saw it – the sculptor also snuck in reverence.

The red marble cladding (is that proper name for it?) on the cenotaphs was taken from the ruins of Hitler’s chancellery (according to rumor) – the site of which Alex also took us to. Today it’s an apartment house and where the Führerbunker stood is a parking lot. There’s a diagram of the bunker at the site. The Soviets filled the place with concrete so nothing grows there and nothing can be built. It’s small, shabby, insignificant . . . so marvelously ignominious.

After the memorial we drove to the river bank for a beer on a barge – Rava loves beer and she drank it every day with our main meal!!! It was so pretty there. The Spree River meandering beneath us, the forest of Treptow Park at our backs.

We finished the evening with liver, apples and onions [for the culinarily challenged, this is known as Leber und Zwiebel Berliner art—“liver and onions Berlin style” ~Rick] at a ‘typical’ Berlin resto/bar.

Must say though that Rava did her usual thing with maps and got us unerringly where we wanted to be. She loves it. A typical Rava pose on vacation is her poring over the map which, by the end of the holiday, is falling apart!!

BERLIN PART II
25/6/2013

Day 3 was Museum Island [Museumsinsel] where we visited the Neues and Pergamon Museums for, respectively, In Light the of Amarna:100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery and Uruk: 5000 Years of the Megacity.

The Neues houses the busts of Nefertiti and Akhnaton. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether the busts on view are the originals, but seeing the actual Nefertiti in the flesh, as it were, was glorious. The Amarna exhibition itself was a disappointment, being a record of 100 years of excavations at the Amarna site where Nefertiti was discovered. The only thing that really stuck in the mind were the wall paintings on the tombs.

At the Pergamon – named for the Altar of Pergamon in Asia Minor [now part of Bergama, Turkey] – we were gobstruck by the 2nd-century BCE altar. The main hall of the Pergamon is a kind of reconstruction of the altar with the frieze running around the side and a huge flight of steps. The gates of Ishtar from ancient Babylon are also there. These latter were shipped to Germany in pieces in 4000 crates prior to WWI – and then, after the war, reassembled. They are beautiful.

The Uruk exhibition was as similarly disappointing as Amarna – we both had the feeling that it wasn’t really geared to the lay public.

Our tenderest memory of the Pergamon (Philistines that we are!) is the piece of mango and blackcurrant torte we shared in the cafe.

We’d already visited Checkpoint Charlie [the official crossing point, located in the former American Sector of the occupied city, between West (Allied-occupied) and East (Soviet-controlled) Berlin during the Cold War era] to take the inevitable pix by the noticeboard – “You are leaving the American Sector” – and sandbags of the little guard post. But that evening we went to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum which was the life work of human rights activist Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt . . . everything I’m telling you about is extensively documented on the web, of course!!! My point is – we were there.

In a way, the Wall defines Berlin, a huge scar. There’s bits and pieces of it all through the city. Alex took us to the longest still-standing section of it, about 1.6 km. [just under a mile] running alongside one of the broad boulevards the Soviets built. There’s more of it at a place called The Museum of Terror, which we didn’t get to, and which documents the activities of the Third Reich’s infamous Gestapo and SS [on the former site of whose headquarters the Topographie des Terrors is located,]. Western artists were invited to paint panels of it and there are four painted Wall panels on a sidewalk, one by an American artist. It’s just one more instance of how the Wall remains part of Berlin consciousness.. These stand on (I think) Alexanderplatz . . . .  [There is also an exhibition of 105 paintings on Wall panels by artists from all over the world, painted in 1990 on the east side of the Berlin Wall, at the East Side Gallery located on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. ~Rick]

Anyway – the museum that provides pictures, records, videos, artifacts, etc., of everything and anything to do with the Wall from the fall of Berlin in 1945 to the fall of the Wall in 1989. We spent a couple of hours there and tottered out, heads reeling. TMI. Oh, but fascinating in every way – especially the methods of escape. One daring chap actually constructed a kind of helicopter from all sorts of cannibalized parts. Took real courage. Close to 1000 people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin. There were Wall Helpers, brave souls who organized escapes and assisted people to escape . . . and so on.

The following morning after breakfast – we were bumped from “our” table for a more favored guest – we went to a market. This was Wednesday [19 June] and the market was ⅞ empty with very few stalls. Oh well. One of them was selling hand-painted pottery from Poland. I bought a wee dish – I have a weakness for ceramics and china – which I ended up giving as a gift to my upstairs neighbor who’d faithfully watered my plants while we were away and whom I’d forgotten to buy a present for.

Another stall sold Italian pastries. There we bought a hefty slice of almond bread to have with coffee later. 

A bonus was the Catholic church nearby that had splendid contemporary black, white and shades thereof stained glass windows. Beautiful. Naturally we had to walk all the way around it to find the entrance – our feet certainly had a workout in Berlin!!

The largest store in the city is KaDeWe. Like Macy’s in New York, it occupies an entire city block and is considered a tourist Must See. [It’s more like Bloomingdale’s than Macy’s in my opinion. ~Rick] So we went. We wanted to get Yoav, Rava’s son and my grandson, a gift and possibly some clothes for Rava, but German women are not built in Rava’s size, so no joy there. The entire 6th floor is the Deli.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” says my daughter, and disappears. After more than 20 minutes I have been to the bathroom twice – no Rava – and am getting frantic, envisioning disaster. I am just about to summon the cavalry when she hoves into sight.

“Where were you?” I almost shriek at her.

“Wandering around,” she says. “Figured you would, too, and that we’d run into each other!”

“No!!!” I retort. “I’ve been waiting right here.”

Oh well.

So she takes me around, especially to the pastry counters . . . and we consume a slice of raspberry torte [Himbeertorte] with our coffee, harmony well-restored.

The guidebook we took with us told us that there are 1800 types of cheese on offer, 1400 breads and 2000 cold cuts. If I’m going to be facetious, and why not, you could eat every day for 4 years or so and never buy the same thing twice.

Wednesday and Thursday [19 and 20 June] were contemporary art days and they’re for part III

BERLIN PART III
26/6/2013

You ask whether we ate food other than pastries. Certainly we did. Berlin these days is multi-ethnic foodwise. There are dozens of Italian, Chinese, certainly Turkish eateries everywhere. Remember, I mentioned Thai food before the opera and liver and onions after our sojourn with Alex?

As for the other days . . . Berlin was at the tail end of the asparagus [Spargel] season, the fat, white asparagus that is so delicious on its own, but which gets served in a myriad ways by inventive German chefs, two varieties of which we ate Wednesday and Thursday, as you’ll read.

One detail I didn't mention is that it was HOT! as in 36º C [about 97º F, very hot for Berlin, which is farther north than Fargo, N.D., and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada ~Rick] on the Thursday, and because Germany, as the UK, isn't geared to expect heat, public transportation, restaurants, etc., aren't air-conditioned. The big KaDeWe (acronym for Kaufhaus des Westens [“the department store of the West”]) thankfully was, and so was the theater, but in the main we sweltered. Mind you, the Berliners, after the worst winter on record for some 60 years, were reveling. All the outside tables of the cafes were packed, packed, packed.

Another little nugget is the day we visited the Brandenburg Gate, workers were erecting a vast outdoor stadium which we learned later was for Obama [who addressed the city from there on Wednesday, 19 June], so it was lucky we went on the Monday [17 June]. The next morning at breakfast one of our hostesses told us that the center of Berlin was in security lockdown, so that there’d be all kinds of traffic jams, as indeed there were, but we managed to avoid them traveling underground.

Anyway.

Back to Wednesday afternoon and the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former subway station now converted to a contemporary art museum. An amazing place! Its central hall featured sculptures and installations, one of which was a bag lady whom I swore was a living statue and which Rava equally swore was a sculpture.

“I saw her blink,” said I. “It’s the one reflex you can’t control.” 

“No way,” said Rava. You imagined it.”

And when we left a couple of hours later, there she still was. I still say she was a living person!!

Another piece that made an impression was a reclining woman made of wax into which the sculptor had placed candles, so that she was gradually melting.

The museum is huge but we managed to see most of the temporary exhibits. The Central hall was one exhibit – entitled Body Pressure: Sculptures Since the 1960s.

Have you ever heard of Martin Kippenberger [1953-97]? I hadn’t. The man was a genius who put out an extraordinary body of work including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, collaborations, books, pamphlets – you name it. He died at 44 of liver cancer.

The museum is by the river, so we garnered a table outside in the shade and ate asparagus with grilled salmon and a big mixed salad. Delicious. 

Rava took of her shoes and wiggled her toes to the breeze while the river rolled by beneath us.

Ahem.

Made a mistake. It was the Wednesday evening we went to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Thursday we skipped breakfast in order to get an early start for Potsdam, about an hour away from Berlin by subway, train and bus. We had to wait for quite a while for the bus and for some reason, many of the bus-stops have no benches, so if you have to wait, it gets tiring. The bus finally came and we were off to Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s summer palace.

What they didn’t tell us when we bought tickets – tickets to museums, etc., are costly – was that if we wanted to see the art collection, the kitchens and so on, it cost extra. So we saw only the palace, which is a wee one as palaces go. It’s built like a railroad car, with only 10 rooms. The audio guide told us that guests had to enter their rooms via the French windows. We got an excellent explanation for each room. Frederick, like so many of his contemporaries, was into Chinoiserie, so two of the bedrooms were decorated in an oriental motif. One was like an orchard with fruit, flowers and birds, especially parrots all around the walls and on the ceiling.

He’d built ruins, too, and a Chinese pagoda but we went to neither as it would have meant climbing hills  – not in that heat, thank you. If the palace was small, the grounds made up for it – some 400, or maybe it was 4000, acres of parklands, woods, avenues, fountains, pavilions and so forth.

There’s a resto there, in the park, called the Drachenhaus [Dragon House], to which we went for lunch.

We were lucky. Got there ahead of a huge expected party, so found a table in the shade and ordered carrot mousse wrapped in bacon and a mango asparagus pancake with arugula and ginger cream. Both yummy.

Then back to the hotel for a shower and a rest, and off to the New National Gallery [Neue Nationalgalerie] for cutting-edge contemporary art . . . lots of really huge, arresting canvases, many of which pack a powerful and visceral punch. I was grateful for the chance to see this work. 

Our last meal in Berlin was prosaic fish and chips at the Corroborree Australian resto in the Sony center.

And the next morning it was up at 6, breakfast, and off to the airport for our flight home – well pleased with our Berlin sojourn.

[I’ve known Helen since I directed her in an Off-Off-Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan back in the ‘70s.  Born in Britain, she lived in the States for many years before she moved to Tel Aviv, and we keep in touch regularly.  Helen directs English-language plays and musicals in Israel and writes reviews and cultural features for the Jerusalem Post.  Over the years, she’s not only covered the culture beat for JP but she’s done a fair amount of traveling for her own purposes, including two years teaching English at a provincial university in China.  Now and then, Helen sends me articles about the cultural and theater scene in Israel, including the 2012 Acre (Acco) Festival (see her reviews posted on ROT on 9 November 2012), as well as other experiences she’s had (“Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010) and spot productions she’s reviewed, such as Harper Regan in Tel Aviv (attached to my own report of 20 October 2012 as a comment dated 28 October).  Her reviews of an adaptation/interpretation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women directed by Yukio Ninagawa, the Japanese experimental theater artist; a new Israeli play, The Tired Hero by Eldar Galor; and an old review of a show she saw in Tel Aviv that also played in New York City, Not By Bread Alone by Nalagaat, are posted on ROT as “Dispatches from Israel 1” (23 January 2013).]
 


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