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Thursday, January 18, 2018

last days in paradise!

uary 16 or is it 17th?

We are nearing the end of our Guadeloupian sojourn. We are in our third and last location of the trip, in Trois Rivieres. All of our locations have been wonderful. We did a lot of research, but it’s always somewhat of a crap shoot. The photos and descriptions are sometimes misleading, they may show water views but not indicate that they aren’t from the house, etc. And here, becausse the descriptions are in French, it’s of course an additional challenge.

We stayed first at place called Be on the Beach, funny name, especially since virtually no one staying there is a primary English speaker. I guess it has the same kind of cache as some French phrases do to us Americans, like chez whatever, or Maison de …..

As I said in a previous post, it was right on a small beach that we had pretty much entirely to ourselves,  and walkable to the slightly honky tonk but charming town.

Next stop, Deshaies, where we stayed last year, in another apartment right on the water, just a block down, and at the other end of town, from where we stayed before. Like many places here, it is pretty much open air, open living room, kitchen, etc.  We didn’t tour around as much as last year, because we had checked out so many areas and beaches then. I was content staying long hours on the porch, just perusing the sailboats in the harbor, the horizon, and yacht people coming back and forth in their dinghies to get baguettes or come in for dinner in town.

Our little beach there was just a few doors down and past one of the cafes. Water warm and calm.  Loring captioned a photo of me “exercising”  after asking me what I call what I do when in the water.  I was really just floating around listening to Elvis and Shakira and Springsteen etc thru my waterproof MP3 player, one of the bests gifts I ever got.

Because of the supersnowstorm up north, we’d had to delay our trip three days, and so also extended four days on this end. Norwegian only flies here twice a week. Hence we had to find a third location, and did that from here.  That was almost a disaster.  Our credit card company apparently cancelled our credit cards, probably because we hadn’t notified them that we were going away. This isn’t the first time that’s happened, but usually they put it on hold and check to make sure that the card hasn’t been stolen. Not this time.  So we spent hours trying to find the right place followed by hours trying to reach the credit card company after we submitted the reservation several times and had it rejected.

It all worked out in the end, as things seem to do.  The place here is as wonderful as the first two, though quite different, and a nice counterbalance to the others. We chose the town of Trois Rivieres because it was on a part of the island we hadn’t seen before.  It is perched on a hill above the town,  with wonderful views of the sea and also the “Saintes,” small islands that are part of Guadeloupe along with Marie Galante, another island that we spent time on last year. On a very clear day you can also see Dominica, an English speaking island (country?)  a bit further off. Dominica was hit pretty hard by hurricane Maria, but Guadeloupe missed the brunt of it.

The place we are at now is called Ilots des Fleurs, and is indeed covered with all kinds of flowers. It consists of 4 cabins, or gites, plus the larger villa that the managers live in. They are Canadian, and friends of the owners, who are also Canadian. They are a delightful couple, and work hard maintaining the gardens and lawn. The cabins are, like the other places w’'ve stayed, largely open. This one has no ac, but it isn’t a problem.  It is entirely “off the grid.”  There is gas for the stove,  hot water and electricity are solar.  The couple have been running the place for a few months, and will be here another month or two, then back home and will be replaced by another Canadian couple.  I guess the owners spend some time here too.)

Al and  Rachel are welcoming and invited us for a drink which turned into cheese, crackers, watermelon from the garden, and an invitation to dinner, which we declined. But we spent an hour or more chatting with them and their guests, her brother and her best friend from childhood.
There’s no beach here, one has to drive about 20 minutes to the nearest one. If this was my only stay here, I’d definitely choose beach.  But it’s nice to have different experiences.  The beach here, Grande Anse,  has black sand, also a nice contrast to our other beach experiences. In addition to being black, it is very smooth and fine, a nice feel.

There is a pool here, which was a surprise to us, since it wasn’t in the description. I have always wanted to sit it a pool overlooking the ocean. But the water is colder than the ocean, or at least I haven’t warmed up enough in the sun here to be tempted. Tomorrow is our last day here. I guess I’m going to have  to go in at least briefly, if just for the experience and the photo!
There are all kinds of little museums around the island, The Musee de Cacao, Musee du CafĂ©, etc, And a number of distilleries. There’s a Musee des Bananes just up the road, and we tried to visit this morning. But a sign said it was only open this afternoon, so we’ll try again tomorrow.

Sometimes these little museums are just tourist traps, a way to sell products. But the Musee de Cacao, near Deshaies, which we visited last year, was quite interesting. And we were told by our hosts here that other guests visited the Banana Museum and found it interesting.

Soufrieres, the volcano that provides the black sands, is a major tourist destination. It’s a  one and a half hour hike, which I hadn’t planned to do, but thought Loring would. We drove up the winding mountain dirt road. Wonder if we were even going the right way. Then, suddenly, came upon dozens, maybe more than a hundred, cars parked along the side of the road. The parking lot at the top was entirely full. But as I suspected, before long people left and we were able to find a spot. Many were hiking up to the volcano, but others were sitting in the warm springs at the head of the trail, which was really where I wanted to go. Loring decided not to hike up, and we just floated in the spring pool for a while. As everywhere here, the visitors are almost entirely French, but we did run into a couple of women from New York in the springs.

And now, last day, the 18th

Spent a couple of hours on the porch this am, reading our books, emails, and the Boston Globe. First stop, the Banana Museum. It was open this morning. We waited a while, saw and heard no one, figured out how to start the tv, and watched 4 short videos about bananas. While we were watching, a woman came in, who I recognized from the first video, giving a tour of the banana harvesting operation.  She led us upstairs to a series of rooms with exhibits about the banana industry. All mildly interesting, worth a visit, but certainly not worth the 8 euros per person. But she was so friendly, gave us each a banana to try. When I asked if she’d been the person who made the dresses and hats out of banana leaves in one part of the exhibit, she said yes, and led us into the gift shop, which was nearly as large as the exhibit. I was surprised at the quality, most if not all made locally, and tried a number of very fashionable couture banana leaf hats. I loved them all, but have no room on my walls to hang more hats, and also doubted very much that I could get them past customs.  So I settled for a small banana leaf hairclip which I certainly will wear, and hopefully will not get noticed by customs.

We were disappointed in the museum, and especially that we didn’t get to see any of the actual banana fields, much less any of the harvesting process. She did s
how us a little of the clothing and hat design process, because I’d asked. And showed us the parts of a costume she was making for some kind of presentation, consisting of a banana leaf bustier and part of a skirt. Quite classy! 

We headed back to our beloved black sand beach, called Grande Anse. Anse means cove, and there are Grand and Petit anses all over the islands here.
This is the one with the volcanic black sand that we’ve spent several hours at each of the last few days. Unfortunately, the weather was gray and we were clearly in for some rain, more than the brief showers that have cropped up pretty much every day. We spent a brief few minutes on the beach, then went across the street for a lunch of accras (fish fritters,) chicken, and various veggies we weren’t familiar with.  Loring went for a swim, but it was clear more rain was coming. So we abandoned our plan of beach time and headed back to town. The town here is in several valleys separated by rivers (Trois Rivieres)and you need to drive up and down numerous hills on winding roads to get anywhere.  We made a stop for our last baguette and pastry at one of the bakeries, drove up and down the same road at least three times trying to find some slave related site we’d seen signs for, and finally did located it, a ruin of a small stone cell where slaves had been been imprisoned on what had once been a sugar plantation.  The sign said there were other ruins of the plantation in the area, but on privately owned land.

Now we are back at our gite, the beautiful little cabin with a porch facing the ocean and the Saintes, smaller islands about ½ hour away from the main island here. And it’s a wonderful place to be. I’m not even sorry that we had to curtail our beach time today. I just hope I get warmed up enough to venture into the pool here, the last thing I feel that I need to do before heading home.  The sun’s come out again, and if I bask in it for a while, I just may be able to do it. Even a brief dip will suffice.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Return to paradise - Guadeloupe 2018

Deshaies jan 12 2018

A year after our first trip here, and a year, perhaps to the day, of the inaguration. We are in the same town, and just a few doors down, from our previous dwelling. Last year I watched the inauguration, in depression and fear, from our porch here. Loring preferred to go kayaking and ignore the real world. It is certainlly easier to do to that here. 

We have on and off internet here, probably not a bad thing.  We did get the “shithole” comment this morning, though.  I love the way the press explained and justified their use of the exact term. Ie, if the president uses it, it is important to quote verbatim.  I fully agree.

After a false start from Providence, due to a serious snowstorm about a week ago, we left the US three days later than planned, and extended our visit here by four, because Norwegian only flies twice a week.We did lose three days of our first booking, and will need to find a third place to stay, the second not a big deal, the first could well cost us hundreds of dollars as it wasn’t refundable. We are hoping the airiline will reimburse us, but are not at all confident that they will.

Well, we are here, and so I will try to not focus on or worry about that.
Our first stay, where were only able to stay three days of our week planned, was right on the beach in the town of Ste. Anne, on Grande Terre. We’d stayed on Basse Terre, here in Deshaies, last year. Our bungalow in Ste Anne was right on the beach, on the edge of town.  Ste Anne is bustling, a busy public beach, lots of shops and restaurnats and lots of traffic. It was fun to spend a day in, eating crepes on a beachfront restaurant, food truck actually, with a canopy and tables and chairs.  There was a market that was primarily spices, with some other foods and also  crafts.

Although we saw other cars and, a few times, people, in some of the bungalows, we rarely saw anyone there in four days, and only once had company on the beach. Just my kind of place, where you can walk out to the beach without shoes. The water was shallow and warm, the depth or lack thereof a little hard for Loring, heaven for me.

Our stove didn’t work. The first night we arrived at midnight, so didn’t even know. We thought it was some trick that couldn’t figure out. It turns out it was just plain broken. So Fritz, the owner, sent us out to dinner at a wonderful gourmet Caribbean/French place called Kote something, at the other end of town near the Club Med.  He had to talk them into fitting us in, they were all booked up. By the time we got back to our place, there was a new stove all installed!  Amazing service, especially in such a laid back environment.

Our booking was actually for  15 minutes before the restaurant opened, so that’s how they fit us in.  It was well worth not having a stove for a day.  Fritz did the right thing by treating us to dinner, but he certainlyl needn’t have sent us to what might have been the choicest location in town!  Several times, folks came in and were told the place was all booked up for the evening. One couple was American, the only native English speaking folks we’d yet come across.

  A couple of days later, I heard Americans in the market, a young couple deciding which beach to visit that day. That is the extent of the English I’ve heard spoken in the five days we’ve been here, aside from what’s been spoken to us. I havent’t heard any other languages at all beside French, it seems that, thus far, all the visitors have been French. And the locals are French, as well, since Guadeloupe is part of France.

We spent parts of our days driving around the nearby towns, scoping out other possibililties to stay.  Found a play on and went to check it out, having made a no deposit reservation. Only to find out that the listing was a mistake, the man had forgotten to remove the listing, he already had a booking.  Good thing we’d gone to check it out, or we would have driven back across the island for the last few days of our stay, to fnd out it wasn’t available.

So now we’re back in Deshaies “dayhay” the first time, I believe, that we’ve ever come back to the same place, or even the same country, two years in a row.

 Actually, having written that, I realize there’s an exception, Hummingbird Cay in the Bahamas, where we returned a number of years when we were in our 20s. But that was a special place and a special arrangement. Loring worked for the owner of the private island, doing maintenance, and he let us stay there a number of times after that. That was an experience we’d never be able to match, and for a time we were too spoiled by having been there to consider another beach trip where we didn’t have a whole island to ourselves!!

So, seeing that this is the only other time we’ve returned to a tropical island, or another other location, repeatedly, you can imagine how much we like it here!

What is so appealing, aside from the beach and the ocean and the weather is the so slow pace of life, at least for those on vacation.  I could easily spend the day on our porch here, with the only activities being reading, writing, getting a baguette from the bakery a few doors down, going in the water which involves a one or two minute walk to the little beach nearby.
There are plenty of activities around, water sports for those   interested, or even just watching the kite-surfers, excursions to various beautiful beaches, ruins, Museums of Rum, Chocolate, Coffee, Bananas, etc. We visited the Chocolate Museum last year, it was actually quite interesting. The others may or not be, and we may or may not find out.  Yesterday, we went to the very impressive looking Museum of Slavery in Pointe A Pitre, the capitol.  It was worth a visit, but not as interesting as I would have hoped. Perhaps part of the problem is making a museum about such a terrible subject. Then again, I’ve visited several Holocaust museums and found them very interesting and powerful.

 There was art incorporated into many parts of the exhibits, and that was the most interesting part.  There were also a number of fascinating sculptures outdoors on the grounds of the museum. They were not mostly related to slavery but seemed to be part of a project with an environmental theme. One was made of thousands of bottlecaps. Others were of plastic cups and tubes. One was a veritable plastic Chihuly garden.  I’ll try to post that one.

But what touches me most on this kind of trip is the slowing down, of all my activity and even thinking. I can do nothing for a long time and not be bored. I remember that feeling well from our times in the Bahamas, several months one trip for me, and others of several weeks. Loring spent a whole year there, coming back briefly to get me.

There is so little and so much to do. Time and experience seems to expand. A day or two ago I was mesmerized by merely some grains of sugar spilling out of a package and into my coffee. The sugar here is different, a light brown, between the colors of our white and brown sugars at home. And large granules,more the size of sea salt than regular table salt. I watched those granules tumble into and then dissolve into my black coffee, admiring their beauty.

So many other things reflect that intense experience in the usually normal, heightened by a different reality and pace of time.

Almost since we arrived here, there have been small birds flitting around our balcony/living room. I of course  encouraged them by putting out a dish of sesame seeds, fallen from our sesame crackers, and then some tiny chunks of melon rind with small amounts of melon still adhered.  I find their flitting around our chairs and heads endearing, Loring not as much.  So he took the seeds off the table and put it on the porch floor. I can live with that! The birds have pretty much settled in now, and perhaps they would have anyway. There are at least three different kinds, but the only ones I can identify are the bananaquits, small with yellow breasts.

On the beach, this morning, were several cats, very reticent, and a little later, some roosters strutting about.  And again, hardly any people. This, though, is a public beach in a town, and there were plenty of people strolling by, some stopping to try to attract the cats.  Also a couple of restaurants with porches right up to the beach, and a number of folks, some with coffee, some with beer, in the late morning.

One of the restaurants is the one featured in Death in Paradise, the British tv series filmed here. We didn’t find out about it until we rented our place here last year, but friends had watched it on pbs. It’s a  wacky murder mystery series with a death in each episode,  kind of a Murder She Wrote Caribbean style. So much fun to see places we recogize, including our house. They don’t film this time of year, but yesterday I saw a flier for a Death in Paradise festival  coming in July, with 48 hours straight of 48 episodes. And also some discussions and who knows what else. I hope the actors   and crew will be here.

I’ll end for now with a description of our current habitation.  It has a beautiful porch, which I saw last year and which partly led to our returning.  There are two ac bedrooms, with views of the ocean from bed.  The porch is the dominant part of the place, it is basically an outdoor living room with sofa, chairs, lounge chairs, table and chairs. The kitchen/bar is also open, a common part of Guadeloupe architecture.  So, as I said, I could easily just wile the day away here.  And aside from an hour’s excursion  downstairs and down a few yards to the beach, that is just what I’ve done thus far today.

My choices right now, either back to my book, a sad but absorbing account about a teenage Syrian refugee, or a nap, or, most likely, one followed by the other.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A day and night in Dresden, museum, art passage, old city, sauna, lots packed into one last day.

So, last leg of the trip, or next to last. We are sitting at Tegel airport, awaiting boarding of our flght. We fly to NY this time, then to Boston. ON the way over it was Boston to Amsterdam to Berlin.  Hopefully won’t have trouble making our connecting flight in NYC.
We spent a wonderful last day in Dresden yesterday. Not much time, less than 24 hours, but we made the most of it. We arrived at about 11am, and were able to check into our room immediately. It was in the center of the old city, with a garage underneath, so very convenient. We left the car for the day, and took a long walk over the Elbe( same river as we were on in Stadt Wehlen for the previous four days. )

We were headed to the Art Passage, a place I’d read about some years ago, and then again more recently. It’s in a kind of trendy/cheap area of hippyish shops, bars and cafes,  ethnic eateries,  graffitied walls and tattooed folks.  There’s several courtyards with apartments fringing them, but one in particular has some art installations with a series of pipes and musical instrument looking things that trail down the wall. Water cascades down, making a fountain of the whole wall, and supposedly, musical sounds as well.  Perhaps in a rainstorm, but the small trickle there yesterday wasn’t all that impressive, although the idea was great and the courtyards was visually appealing. 
Nevertheless, it gave us the opportunity for a couple of hours walk around the newer inner city, on the other side of the river, and through some interesting neighborhoods. And quite a contrast to the stunning old architecture in the old  city around our hotel, and the museum of Old Masters in the old Palace, which had been our first stop in our one day visit to the city.
At the museum, full of grand portraits and landscapes from the15th century through the 18th, in a beautiful building that was under renovation, we saw Rembrandts,  Cranachs, a Vermeer I was unfamiliar with (they had a second one but it was undergoing renovation)  many more, some artists I was familiar with, many others, German, Dutch, others, with whom I was unfamiliar.
And then, there were the Canalettos!  We’d only realized that he had painted here through the book Boris had in his apartment in Stadt Wehlen.  We’d seen copies of the twelve he painted of Pirna, near Stadt Wehlen,  at the tourist office there. They did not have any originals. “We’re just a small town,” explained the woman at the tourist office, nevertheless seeming quite proud of the connection. According to the woman, it was assumed, but not known for sure, that the artist had spent a good deal of time in Pirna, since he painted so many large works there.

In the Dresden museum there were six of his paintings hanging in one gallery.  It was an impressive display, six large murals with details of the old town, where we were staying, and views of the Elbe, all painted in the 18th century.  

We knew that Dresden had been heavily bombed during the second World War, by the US, and that it largely destroyed the town.  As in Berlin, we’ve been fascinated by the history and archeology, trying to figure out what was from what time period, what had survived, what was reconstructed, etc.  To us, it seemed like many of the very old buildings in the old city had survived, judging by the number of still blackened structures. The woman who’d guided my Berlin tour had mentioned that much of the statuary had been hidden away earlier in the war, and if you saw fairly white buildings with black statues, that was an indication that the building had been reconstructed.

Yet here in Dresden, we were surprised at the number of buildings that seemed to have survived.  I’m sure if we’d been there at the time it wouldn’t have seemed like many. Nevertheless, it seemed that some of the major buildings, churches, palaces,  had survived. I’m going to have to read more to get a better understanding of what the city has looked like during various time periods of the last century.

It has been interesting to see the amount of construction, and reconstruction, that is continuing all these years after WWII, and also after the reunification of Germany.  Of course, most major cities have a large amount of construction. 

It is one of the most interesting and appealing aspects of Berlin to see the combination of prewar and pre 20th century construction, combined with Soviet era buildings, newer construction, and melding of more than one.  I find the combined construction the most interesting, ie buildings that retain some of an earlier structure but add more modern elements, like a glass dome or projecting features.  I know there are building codes that determine if or how much of a building can be changed, based on historical significance. But I don’t know just how that works.

The area right across the street from our Dresden hotel, and the view from our window, was an archeological site that is still being excavated. I couldn’t read the signs (they looked mostly like photos of the company’s other building projects)  or tell from what time period the area dated. The very friendly man who checked us in told me that the hotel, too, was built on an excavated site. He said that the excavations were worked into the cellar of the building, which housed the health activity center and saunas.  So of course we had to check the saunas out.

Clad in white terry bathrobes and spa slippers, we took the elevator down, encountering a few similarly attired folks on the way.  The space was indeed integrated into the walls of the old (ancient?) building. There were two saunas, a Finnish style and a bio sauna. The difference seemed to be mostly the temperature, the bio sauna being not quite as hot. The saunas were both coed, and I believe I was the only one, of about a half dozen while we there, who had a bathing suit or any clothing on.  I also had the bio sauna, plenty hot for me, to myself.

 There were showers, a tiled room with foot baths, rooms for massage, and a “relaxation” room. I was relaxed enough after a couple of bouts of sauna and shower, but felt the need to experience the relaxation room.  It consisted of about eight or ten lounge chairs, soft music and some not- too- strong- smelling herbal essence, and, two of what looked exactly like queen -size beds.  I was a bit puzzled about who and how people would relax in those. But didn’t find out because I was the only one relaxing. In the relaxation room, that is. Loring said he would relax better in the bed in our room, and went upstairs to do so.  I think we were both pretty relaxed at the end of the process.

Fully refreshed, we headed out to choose a place for our final dinner in Germany.  We’ve probably eaten out only four or so actual dinners in our two weeks, plus several mid day snacks of either pastries, sandwiches, or ice cream.  Other than that, we’ve cooked in our two abodes.  It’s not for money reasons, , and in fact the restaurants there were surprisingly inexpensive by US standards.  We just like to cook and hang out in our accomodations, when we’ve picked them well and have views or some kind of charming ambiance. But it also is nice to have a meal out every few days.

The first few restaurants, on the main square, were fully occupied.  We’d waited until fairly late, by our standards, until about 830, because it doesn’t get really dark until about 10pm and I wanted to see the old city at night.  But on the far side of the square we found a perfectly nice, traditional (ie no pizza or pasta or burgers) place. I had a “suckling pig” dinner with vegetables and a mushroom dumpling,   Loring  had  a platter with a variety of meats and cheeses and breads. His plate included a meatball which turned out to be a raw meatball, of which he gamely ate half.  

This morning, we came down for breakfast only to find that on Sundays, breakfast starts at 7am rather than the 6:30 on other days.  I was devastated. Well, very disappointed anyway. They offered to make up box lunches for us. But I knew that would probably be meats and cheeses. Nicely, the desk staff talked to the kitchen and they let us in early.  We wouldn’t have been able to wait until 7 because we had a  two to three hour  drive back to Berlin.

So our sojourn, aside from the flights home, ended with a splendid array of cheeses, breads, croissants, cakes, eggs, meats, lox, herring, fruits and fruit salads, coffee of choice, mine cappuccino,  etc etc.  I didn’t even touch the bacon, there was so much else. Or the cheesecake,    ( which I gather isn’t unusual for breakfast at all, as I thought when my volunteer group devoured 10 or 12 of them in the first week, donated from a food bank. )  I think the quality and variety topped most of the breakfast buffets I’ve ever had, abroad or in the US. And I’ve had some good ones. I asked Loring if it was just my good mood, or if it was truly a superb buffet. He said it was “right up there.”  When the desk staff asked if everything had been okay, I thanked them profusely, and added what Loring had commented. I didn't know if they'd understood the expression, but I am sure they got the message. I was truly appreciative that they'd made the effort to let us have an early breakfast. 

And that about sums things up. We are now on the plane heading to JFK, and then, if we don’t miss our connection, back to Boston. 

It’s been a terrific trip, no complaints other than the ants in the kitchen in Stadt Wehlen, and the lack of a freezer, and hence ice, there. We’ve concluded that it’s a German thing, they are not into ice as much as we are. Just another cultural learning experience.

The only sad part of the last month was the end of the volunteer project, which degenerated due to Saskia’s discomfort with some of the group participants, and her way of handling the situation. I think some of her frustrations were justified, but, as the group leader, she handled it rather badly and left me, and probably everyone, with a sour feeling. I hope she recovers ok. She really did put a lot of effort into planning and implementing the problem, and I like her personally. She may come visit us in August, after the Wikipedia conference in Montreal, and I hope she will. 
And I hope I can stay in touch with a number of people from the group, as I usually do. I expect to stay in touch with Khanh, who seems to be prolific facebooker, and Viola, from South Sudan, who is an inspiration and just a truly nice person. I’d like to keep in touch with Kirke, from Denmark, and the girls from Russia and Latvia, Olga and Pollina and Larisa. Sergey, too, from Ukraine, who was so helpful with the wiki tech stuff.  Plus he was familiar with my Chernowitz cemetery project, because SCI/ SVIT only sponsors a half dozen projects.   Arkun and Martin, from Turkey and the CZ too, but not sure I am fb friends with them. And the others too, Vessy and Turquese who I think I am fb friends with. And who did I miss?
Michael, who I like very much, is not on fb, nor is Jakob,  the co-leader  of the group with Saskia. I tried to convince them to join, if only to keep in touch with me. But if someone is in principal not interested, I understand.  So we will see. I told them they could just have me as a friend, and not accept anyone else! Doubt I've convinced them though.

Well, dinner is being served, so I will end here. Not a bad way to end a tale, with food. Even airplane food. 

A village with charming ambiance, excursions to Bad Shandau, the rock formations at Bastei, an impressive castle, and an unexpected Canaletto encounter!

We've been here in the small village of Stadt Wehlen for the past four days. Tonite is our last night. It’s an idyllic little place. One of the houses directly across the river is, in fact. Called Elbe Idyll.  The Elbe is the river  on  which we are situated directly.  The town has a few restaurants and cafes, a shop that makes candies by hand, and another that makes soaps. We are just a five minute walk from the little main plaza. There’s a couple of hotels, and tons of places with signs saying “ferianhaus”  or holiday house.  We’ve eaten breakfast here every morning, usually had some kind of snack instead of lunch, pastry or ice cream, cooked dinner here a couple of times, eaten out the others. It’s a nice balance.  

We’ll head out shortly for dinner, for our last night. The town is fairly busy during the day, with people coming through on bicycles, hiking, by the boats that ply the river, by ferry from across the river, and on tourist busses. But it’s pretty quiet at night. 

We’ve driven to several of the towns and sites nearby. Most impressive was Bastei, an area of spectacular sandstone rock formations, a scenic stone bridge, and the remains of a medieval fortress built into the rocks. Loring hiked up there a couple of days ago from the village of Rathen, while I strolled around the town taking photos and looking at tacky souvenirs.  At the top, about a 40 minute hike, he encountered hordes of tourists who had come in by car and bus from the other side. It was so crowded he had to elbow his way through to see anything. But the hike itself had been enjoyable.
 Today we approached it from the road, a few hours earlier in the day, and missed most of the crowds.  The formations are massive and impressive, and the views of the Elbe and the surrounding towns are too. We could easily see our own village just around a bend in the river. It was a photo online of the formations and bridge that had first drawn my attention when researching the trip.

One day, we went to Bad Shandau, named for the mineral waters that were discovered there some centuries ago.   I’d seen ads for a place called Toscana, with sauna, massage, health services, and a mineral swimming pool with underwater music and, I think, some kind of light show. If Loring had been inclined to go on another hike, I would have considered spending a couple of hours there, but may not have liked it much anyway. And if there is anything remaining of the old baths, I couldn’t find any reference to it.

On our way back from Bad Shandau, we stopped and spent several hours at Castle Konigsberg, perched high on top of more rock formations, and huge. It is supposedly the largest fortress castle in Europe. It was certainly huge,  with ramparts surrounded some 50 buildings. It’s been used on and off through the centuries as a castle, a hunting retreat for the king, a prison for world war I prisoners of war, a hospital, a facility for disturbed juveniles during the cold war (ie: to retrain them to espouse the politics of the regime) and, since 1955, as a museum.  It is so large you can easily get lost within the compound. And I did. 

Our arrangement was to meet at the elevator that brings you up to the top ( big enough to fit a small truck in, and it did.) I wandered around the ramparts and compound for what seemed like at least a half hour before finally finding the place. In the meantime, I’d come across a museum on the grounds, about the history of the fortress., with explanations in English, which we’d been hard put to find through our wanderings around the compound. So, we went back, toured through the museum, and learned some more about the castle’s history.  In the entry hall, they had an area with period dress ups for kids.  Throughout the museum, we kept encountering children in costumes. One was being pushed, all dressed up, in a wheel chair. It added a nice touch.

I’d mentioned Canelletto, the artist,  before. We’d fortuitously discovered, through a book in our house, that he’d painted many scenes of Pirna, a a town near here, in the  1770’s. At the castle, we also discovered that one of the Kings, a George I believe, had also commissioned Canelletto to paint scenes of the castle.  Today we visited Pirna, and walked around the old marketplace, where some of the buildings are still recognizable from the Canelletto paintings. The woman at the tourist office told us that he painted twelve scenes of Pirna. None of the originals are there, but some are in Dresden, so we may see them there if we have the time. They did have photos of all of them, and a meticulously painted copy of one by a well -known Pirna artist. I know that one is at the National Gallery in DC, which means we probably saw it when we visited the Canelletto show there a few years ago, and probably some of the others, too. But of course the name Pirna didn’t mean anything to me at that time.

 This place has been just right, a charming house with wonderful views and sounds from the river. A paddle boat is passing even as I write. There have been kayaks and rafters periodically, and the frequent sight and sound of the trains passing by on the other side of the Elbe. We are just at the edge of the town, an easy five or ten minute walk. People walk or bicycle by fairly frequently, which just adds to the charm. Cars drive through once in a while. We were, in fact, unsure when we first arrived if our street was actually drivable. 

We saw the two other places I’d considered once I'd chosen this area, and we picked right. Rathen is too honky -tonk and touristed. Bad Rathen is too big, although the place I’d considered was actually outside of town in a little hamlet of its own. So I think we picked just right. Like Goldlocks.

One thing we haven’t had for the last four days is wifi. So we don’t know if anything of significance has transpired, in the world, or in our personal spheres.   Tomorrow, at our Dresden hotel, I am sure we will, and so will catch up with anything we’ve missed in recent days. Hopefully no political or other world crises, or any in our own worlds. Loring is relieved now that it is the weekend, and therefore nothing he has to worry about at work that hasn’t already happened. I will be glad to be able to post these last blog entries, and also photos on facebook, and catch up with anything we may have missed.

 We leave tomorrow for Dresden, a 45 minute drive from here. We’ll spend our last night there, then drive back to Berlin the next morning, then fly home.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Many museums, including the Museum of Things, a peace rally with an angelic family chorus, an encounter with Will and Kate, and more!

I am not going to attempt a chronological account, just will recount as many of the things we saw and did as I can remember, that I haven’t previously written about. 


I read someplace that there are 170 museums in Berlin. I already knew that I wasn’t going to be able to see as many of them as I would like, no matter how long I stayed. And Loring’s tolerance for museums is much less than mine. He not only gets sensory overload, but what he calls “museum legs.”  His legs start to hurt after he’s spent too much time in a museum. They are fine when he’s out hiking. I am exactly the opposite, no pain from museum going, but my legs ache after a certain amount of hiking or walking, especially with any change in elevation. 

I’d already visited the Holocaust Museum, with a few folks from my Wikipedia group. And the Design Museum, by myself, on our free day.  I’d been to the Brandenburg Gate, as well as on a walking tour of some of the historic sights. I waited for Loring to visit the East Side Gallery and the Wall museum, which I”ve already written about, both very impressive.

The Museum of Things, (der Dinge) fascinated me from the description. The first time we tried to find it, we were puzzled, because the address didn’t seem to exist. We later realized it was at the other end of a very long street, Orianstrasse.  The numbers did not seem to go chronogically. It was well worth the effort to track it down. Some of it was a collection of products made by a particular company in the early 20th century. The rest was the museum’s continuing collection of things. Things. If there was more to it than that, it didn’t come through in the translation.  They were arranged aesthetically, not according to function or time period or anything else. So there was a case of yellow and black things, for instance. And one with items related to body parts.  My kind of place, for sure. There was just one small case of things with Swastikas.  I saw many things that I also have, and some that I craved.  One that recurred in several cases was little plastic egg cups, in various pastel colors. More about that in a bit.

We visited the DDR Museum, where I didn’t know what to expect.  It was described as very active with lots of things for children to explore. How do you make a museum about a repressive period in history that is  fun for kids?  We couldn’t not check it out.  It was interactive, indeed. And crowded.  And not just children, but adults, including us,  were opening doors and pushing buttons to learn about what life had been like in East Germany. The most interesting part was the recreated Soviet era apartment.  It was several rooms, larger and more appealing than we would have expected.  You could touch everything, lie in the beds, watch tv, touch all the kitchen utensils,  etc.  The bathroom and kitchen seemed quite modern for the time, early 70s, with wild wallpaper not so different from what you would have found in the US in the same time period.  One kid was typing away on a typewriter. I realized that she might never have seen the old -fashioned equipment before.  We were surprised that the apartment was so appealing. And apparently people were pleased to get one of these apartments, in their huge towers, as the time. One might think that this was a little East German propaganda, but the museum definitely did not take a pre-East stance. 

They had other spaces like interrogation rooms that were not pleasant, but chilling to go into and hear the recorded interrogation.
So it’s a bit of a puzzle, something I’ll have to look into some more. Who were the people that got to live in these apartments? Not the upper echelon, they lived in luxury. Loyal party members, I assume. But what percentage of the population had this kind of living space?  And what was  life like for the others?

The huge buildings, which we saw lots of photos of, were not so different looking, to be honest, than places like Coop City in the Bronx, and probably people felt similarly about them, that they were new and modern and desirable.

We also visited the Berlin Galeries, a---large museum of contemporary art of Berlin.  The main floor was several current exhibitions, including a room full of dislocated pieces of wall in various configurations, a clear reference to The Wall. And another of large pieces that included video, sound, light, all kinds of weird  items and combinations, things you could walk around and into. 

The most remarkable was a piece called Driving in a Dead Man’s Car or something akin to that. You sat in the front seat of a car that was cut away and watched a film featuring a couple driving that got more and more gruesome. When the guy started pulling out his own guts I decided I’d had enough.  Another part of that exhibit had a pair of glasses that were moving mechanically so that one temple continously tapped against the wall, making a small sound. That sound, soft though it was, was somehow amplified so that you could hear it through most of the museum, although it always sounded soft.

Upstairs was the permanent collection, featuring many Berlin artists of whom I”d never heard, and a few that I had. There were some poignant stories of art that had been stolen from Jewish collectors, one whose living descendants had only recently been identified and compensated. There was much of the modern art of the 20s and 30s that was later decried by the Nazi government.  There were a few female artists whose work really caught my eye. I took some pix and if I can find their names I will add them here.
The Jewish Museum, with its striking exterior, was not far from the Berlin Gallery, but Loring and I were both too tired to consider another museum.  I would have liked to just enter the front entryway, to get a better sense of the architecture from inside the building. But there was serious, airport-like security, and it didn’t look as though you could see very much before you got to the ticket counter. So we bypassed the museum and went home. I took a nap, Loring used one of our host’s bicycles and went out for a ride.

One of our unexpected encounters was with Will and Kate, you know the royal ones. We stumbled across a crowd, and lots of police cars and cops, at the Holocaust Memorial. Assumed at first that it was some type of ceremony relating to the Holocaust. But I asked a friendly young cop, who said, “it’s Will and Kate!”  So we waited along with everyone else, and sure enough, after a half hour or so got a good thought brief glimpse of them as they exited the museum and got into their limo. Will waved. I was disappointed to see that Kate wasn’t wearing a hat.

A couple of days later, we stumbled across another wide boulevard blocked off with many police cars. Along the street were a large number of vans and trailers, some of them with decals saying Berlin to Moscow and dates starting from that very day. Turns out it was a rally, at the Brandenburg Gate, to kick off a two week trip to Moscow to promote peace and international understanding. There were hordes of folks with t shirts promoting the trip, and a couple singing folk songs on a stage.  We walked around for a while. When we returned to the stage area, a family was singing beautifully, in what I assume was Russian. The father conducted the children, three or four boys and one little girl with angelic faces and voices. The mother, with an infant strapped to her chest, was singing as well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Wall, the Reichstag and its dome, the Old Masters, Christopher St. Day

We are well into the second part of my Berlin sojourn. Have been walking around the city interspersed with a few trips on the S/U Bahn. I still haven’t figured out exactly what they call the whole system. Nor have we figured out exactly how it works. Especially the ticket machines.  They seem, for the most part, to be dysfunctional. They supposedly take both credit cards and cash, but we are rarely able to get one to work. Therefore, we have been taking some illegal rides. I have not come across a single transit cop in my three weeks here, but people certainly seem concerned, at least the Germans in my group did, and Viola and Michael did get stopped once.  If they find you without a validated ticket, the fine is supposedly 60 euros. 

We’ve walked a lot, one of the first days it was 10 miles.  Other days it’s been perhaps 5 or 6 miles.  Even some of the “museums” are outdoors, one the East Side Gallery, which is a long remaining section of the wall which has been painted, since the wall came down, by many artists.  Most are political statements relating to repression, ie a mural of a car breaking through a wall.  Another stretch of the wall, in another art of the city, is called the Wall Museum.  There is a visitor’s center, with some poignant displays about people displaced, families separated, escapes and escape attempts. But the most compelling part is the walk along the segment of the wall, where the “border houses” that sat literally against wall were used as escape routes, the foundations of the houses that had been excavated fairly recently ,the routes of the tunnels also used for escapes, were delineated with metal markers embedded into the path.  We walked in what is called the dead zone, the space between the actual border and the wall, where fugitives were targets as they tried to escape. People tried all kinds of methods of escape, including hot air balloons, and a zip line?!  I didn’t know such a thing even existed them. Not for recreation, though.
The architectural juxtaposition, and combination, of the old and new is evident and striking wherever you go in the city.  Many monuments and buildings from before the war still exist, but they are in fact largely reproductions. And because the laws are strict about historical accuracy work goes slowly, and is still being carried on today.  Many buildings also combine the old structures, or at least part of them, combined with strikingly modern components, a lot of glass..  As an example, the Reichstag, the seat of government.  It was heavily damaged, as was much of the city, and as part of the reconstruction a huge glass dome was added atop the old structure. A friend in my group had mentioned that you had to make reservations in advance to visit, and I did. The dome itself is currently closed, but just being on the roof and looking inside was impressive enough. When it’s open you can walk up a ramp to the top, which opens to a view the chamber of parliament itself. It’s meant to convey the idea of transparency in government. 

We’ve gone to one of the art museums, the one that houses an impressive collection of old masters,   including Boticelli , Carvaggio, Rembrandt, etc. But I was most interested in the Dutch masters, Bosch and Breugel and there was even one Vermeer called the Wine Glass. Exciting because there are only about three dozen known Vermeers in the world.

In the gift shop I saw a strangely familiar face on a postcard, a portrait of a young woman. I recognized it as a work I’ve had on a postcard  since my days living in Europe. And in a second it dawned on me, this had to be the museum I’d visited on my day in East Berlin in 1970.  My main memory of that day was how intimidating the museum guards, all female, were.  But  obviously some of the art had made an impression, too.  Unfortunaately, it’s not one of the pieces we saw yesterday, aside from the familiar image on the postcard. Several other portraits also looked familiar, perhaps lodged in some inner recess of my memory. Or perhaps just similar to other portraits by some of the same artists.

I’d repeatedly looked, online and on posters, for events that might be happening during our stay. One of them was the night at the Botanical Gardens, which featured lighted displays, and also music and fireworks at the end. But since it didn't begin until dark, after 930, and went until 2am, and was a T trip requiring several changes, we didn’t make it. Berliners seem to be on a much later schedule than we are.

But I don’t know how I possibly missed the fact that yesterday was the city’s Pride Day parade. They actually call it Christopher St. Day here, in English, in reference to the Stonewall riots in NY in 1969. The Stonewall Club was on Christopher St. and basically resulted in the gay rights movement.

From early in the day, we’d noticed what seemed to be an inordinate number of unusually dressed people,  some in garlands,  one guy in pink hair and makeup, etc. But then, I thought, this may just be a Saturday in Berlin.  It was only later, in the afternoon, that we noticed police blockades of many side streets, and more colorfully dressed, and undressed, people.  I asked a man, one of two identically, scantily dressed guys in black,  if there was an event going on, and he cheerily exclaimed, “it’s Christopher St. Day!?  It was pouring, he was shivering, but looked quite happy.

We thought it was over, maybe shortened by the intensive thunderstorms. But when we returned home and I looked online, the news indicated that it was still going on at the Brandenberg Gate.  Too  bad.

My dad’s cousin Seymour Pine was actually the police captain in charge of the attack on the club.  Not something I am particularly proud of. Nor was he, to his credit, in later years. He pretty much apologized in a documentary about the events. I never knew him very well, only saw him at the family gatherings my parents called the “cousin’s club.” What I do remember his seeming a rather sour, and intimidating person.

Seems I have a theme here, about intimidating cops, museum guards, cousins.  I’ll have to give some further thought to whom I find intimidating, and why. 

Don’t think I’ve written here, just on fb, about our chance encounter with Will and Kate a couple of days ago. And there’s a lot more to tell. But I’ll stop here, so as at least to spend part of the day doing things rather than just writing about them. So off on another long walk, and probably a museum or two. Will catch up with you later.

A Mennonite service about Sodom and Gomorroh, a little girl named Salome, and a big barbeque in the garden.

Sunday morning, sitting in the living room at our Mennonite home, awaiting the Sunday service. It’s a small congregation. I am trying to catch up here in the blog while we await the service.  Although I’m not much for prayer, as I told the pastor when he invited me to pray with them ( hope I didn’t offend him, he’s a young and hip seeming person).

Today’s agenda -the service (I will attend that,  it was just the pre service prayer I felt a bit uneasy about) after the service a barbeque, prepared by our group, with the parish. Later, continuation of a workshop/presentation with Leo, who did a workshop with us about prejudices and preconceptions, yesterday. He’s only 21, German but just recently moved to Berlin. 

An hour later, the service is over. I am sorry to say I kept falling asleep. Hope I didn’t snore, nobody elbowed me anyway.  The pastor did a good job of alternating between German and English, song and sermon and prayer.  Some of the hymns were in both languages in the book, and people sang in their respective languages. The sermon was about Lot, and what the story of Sodom and Gommorah told us about hatred, hospitality, etc.  That part would have interested me,  but that’s where I kept dozing off. It does intrigue me how people take bible stories and interpret them to fit their own values.  I gather there was some part about homosexuality, and about Lot offering his daughters for sex to the strangers. Guess I'd better look that up.

The best part of the service was the music at the end. The pianist played Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which has been haunting me recently anyway. I heard him playing it before the service, but wasn't sure it would actually be in the service. Many people, at least those in our group, seemed to know it.

There was a young woman with an infant and a small girl at the service.  At the end of the service the girl announced something loudly, and everyone laughed.  I later asked and found out she'd said  it was "the service is over."  

 I talked quite a bit with the woman, and learned that were the daughters and wife of the pastor, Joel. She told me that Salome, the little girl, likes to have her father's attention, even during the service. When she was smaller, she'd go up to the pulpit, and he'd hold her while he spoke. It's a pretty liberal congregation, Judith said. 

  Judith speaks excellent English, which actually many people, in my group and here in general, do. Turns out they traveled in the US before the kids were born,  and she’d also been an exchange student there when in high school. She’s a doctor, now on maternity leave, and her husband will succeed her  shortly.  Family leave in Germany is very generous, she told me, more so than even in Sweden, on a par with Norway and, I think, Finland. They get ample leave at full salary, plus another 14 months at 2/3 salary which can be shared by mother and father, taken simultaneously by both, or, or taken in different stages, several different options.

Saskia has just been finishing up a presentation for the congregation, in German, about our project.  The congregation here is mostly my age and older. Judith said it is usually more mixed, but in the summer, a lot of the younger families are on vacation. There are actually four pastors who rotate, so each of them does the service once a month.

Everyone is heading out to the garden for a big barbeque that our group prepared for all of us, so I’ll stop here and join them. Better get some more coffee, too.