Follow by Email

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. 


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Workshops in cultural awareness, an Ethiopian feast, and dancing the debka.

Yesterday, Saturday, another busy and varied day. We began with a presentation by Pollina and Larisa, from Russia and Latvia. Larisa has been living in Russia and she and Pollina have been roommates at the university, even though Pollina has just finished her first year, she is 18, and Larisa has graduated and is working, or has worked, as  a  journalist.   They are both very interested in human rights, as is everyone in the group. They talked a bit about their family histories, from their great grandparents’ time, how they had gone from being upper class, dukes, etc to being impoverished and persecuted. 

Then they described a bit of their own research for their studies. And last,  they discussed what they've been doing here in Berlin. They've apparently interviewed many people in different parts of the city, on the streets, in clubs, etc.   They'd told me a bit about that, but I thought it was just talking to folks out of curiousity, hand't realized they were doing reseaarch for a project. said they sensed a difference in attitudes between the east and west areas of the city. When I asked, they attributed it to East Berlin areas being more trendy, younger population, more liberal, rather than to the former divisions into Eastern and Western sectors and governments.

The conversation was interesting, although I wonder how accurate and informative their interview methods are. I guess they are planning to write something in a narrative form, not a study.

The presentation was long, and had started late, so eventually our guest workshop leader, Leo, intervened and said he needed to begin. We moved on to his presentation, which was very interactive. Leo is just 21, but very knowledgeable and skilled, and committed.

We first played a game, outdoors in the garden, with each of us telling the meaning of our names, then having to cumulatively repeat all the previous names. I  wasn’t too keen at first, only because I still have trouble remembering some folks’ names.  Only Michael and myself had no sense of the meanings of our names. He’s from Australia, so I’m guessing it’s an English language thing.  So  we had to be given names – he became the King of Pop, and I, Joan of Arc.  There were a bunch of saints and gods, such as Polina,  from Apollo, and Kirke (Circe) and then Khan the scholar, Sergey the “highly respected person."  Arkun was calm, Larisa a seagall, Saskia from Saxony, and Martin a small Roman god. (Mars.) 

We did  another exercise in groups. Leo read us a fairly lengthy description of an actual country and some of its attributes,  and we then had to figure out what country it was. Our group went with South Africa, another thought Indonesia, one guessed Nigeria.   The country actually was Germany, with a few tricky but true descriptions thrown in, like many linguistic groups,  etc.  It all served to point out many of the  assumptions and prejudices we make and have.

We then watched a riveting TED  talk by Nigerian activist and writer  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  who talked about the danger of a “single story.” She described the stories she wrote as a child, which all featured white characters because they were British books, she had no books with Nigerian characters, and assumed that Nigerians couldn’t appear in stories.  But she also admitted to her own prejudices and assumptions,  for instance, toward the houseboy her upper class family employed, and her assumptions about his family life because of his poverty. She discussed how categorizing people reduces them to stereotypes, and emphasizing differences rather than similarities robs people of dignity. I agree but also think that it's important to respect and appreciate differences, something I always tried to emphasize in my cultural programs with kids.

At mid afternoon, we headed out to Uber den Tellerand, the agency that focuses on food as a away to connect people and share cultures.  We’d been there last week. Once a month they host a community supper from a particular culture, that everyone is welcome to join, help prepare, and eat.

When we arrived there were already 30 or 40 people cooking together under the instruction of two Ethopian women, chopping vegetables, making bread, etc. We readily joined in. The preparation took almost three hours, interesting but a bit too long, and it was crowded and hot. So eventually I went for a walk down the street with a couple of others from our group, to a little shop with some interesting looking stuff in the window. Wound up buying  a wonderful Berlin souvenir, a little art piece. Loring alert – I’m not going to show it to you, see if you can find it after we get home and I find a corner in which to hang it.

Eventually, we all sat down on cushions and at tables for an Ethiopian feast.  Most people put all the  various food on the pancakes and some rolled them up. I’d heard the explanation and have also had Ethiopian food a few times before in Boston, so knew to eat the food with chunks of bread to scoop it up. We’d also been told that it was really impolite to lick your fingers, but some people didn’t hear or didn’t care or couldn’t help themselves. I pointed it out, all in good nature, to a young man, whose response was,  “I guess I’m a bad boy.”  

It was quite a combination of folks and cultures, not necessarily easy to discern. Brought home the lessons from earlier in the day.  I met one American woman who’d moved to Berlin from San Francisco, just in search of new experiences and perspectives. And a number of people with clearly African heritage or Arab heritage, but I had no sense of whether they were long time residents or newcomers .One striking Ethiopian woman with blond hair served as translator for the cooks, and was nearly fluent in English. I thought she was a regular part of the group but she told me this had been her first time there. She’d gone to school in the U.S. which may have explained her fluency. But nearly everyone I’ve met here, in our volunteer group and beyond, speaks reasonably good if not excellent English.  Many have learned at school, but some  more from TV, like Khan in our group, who’s Vietnamese.

Our supper wasn’t the end of our evening. We took off by bus and u bahn to the other side of the city, to meet with members of a multicultural social  group. Most of the folks there were of Arabic heritage, but one man was from Costa Rica. And there was a woman who was from Romania, and Jewish. When I told her where I’d been in Romania (Cluj-Napoca,  in Transylvania) she said, that’s not Romania, you have to visit Bucharest. Interesting, since I loved Cluj and hadn’t had much interest in visiting Bucharest, which I envision as a dreary former communist enclave.  I’m pretty sure my impression was right, at least at one point, but perhaps is totally out of date. Just another example of the assumptions we make.

The night was yet young. The major reason for our visit was to have a lesson in Arabic dancing. So after a short introduction to the group, we learned some basic steps. The teacher asked me how I knew how to do the debka.  I laughed and said I learned some folk dancing about 45 years ago, in college. I was, of course, thrilled at his comment. 

And then, our instructor and another guy got up to show us how it’s really done.  For the next 15 or so minutes, five men danced in different combinations  and configurations,   to the same mesmerizing Arabic music. I was enthralled, and I think the rest of the group was too. Afterwards, they put on different music and various of us got up to dance. Much of our group got up to do the Macarena, along with a couple of the locals.  Vessy danced what may or may not have been authentically Bulgarian but was great. One of the men got me up and we danced together, me doing something that was a vague combination of belly dance and flamenco. And we were all perfectly sober, since no liquor had been served at either event.

Friday, July 14, 2017

"I smile because I'm still alive."

Now I have to backtrack a bit to yesterday.  We had a free day until 4pm. I chose to stay home and work on my entry about Ahmad, the dancer. At 4pm, when all had returned, Viola did a first presentation for us about the situation in South Sudan, where she lives.  The situation is pretty dire, many tribes, civil war, lots of violence. She talks about how rebel soldiers came to her house with guns and she wasn't sure they'd survive.  She relates this all in her soft manner, but she is a powerful force, determined to try better her country by educating people and continuing to work for peace. She works to educate young people about use of the internet as a tool for peace, among many other projects  in which she’s involved. She teaches at a university there, although she hasn’t gotten paid in the last five months. Nevertheless, she is the source of support for her mother and one of her sisters. Some quotes from her presentation – “ If there’s no love, there’s no peace."  " If there’s no peace, there’s no life.”  When we ask her about how she can still smile after all the terrible things her family and her country have endured, she says, “I smile because I’m still alive.” She’s receiving news from home that things are worse, more violence in the area where her family lives, and she’s clearly worried. She’s going home next week. 

Yesterday evening, we went to the R0g organization, the one that brought Viola here to join our group and participate in other projects with them. Stephen Kovats, the founder, with his wife,  had met Viola in South Sudan. Our group met with a number of people with an interest in South Sudan, or refugees, or related areas. It was a remarkable gathering of knowledgeable and committed people. Viola did a second presentation about her work. Saskia did a presentation about our project.  Then we hung out for a while and socialized. They’d provided a nice spread of finger food, fruit, veggies, dips, cookies, some kind of vegetable chips, some Indian hors d’oeuvres.  And wine, and three kinds of waters. Bubbly, not as bubbly, very bubbly. Germans are into bubbly waters. A surprise to many in the group when that’s pretty much what we’d had the first days. I guess it had never occurred to Saskia that not everyone likes soda water. More for me!

We also met a Palestinian man, another refugee, who Saskia’s now invited to join us here with some of his friends in one of our few remaining available bits of time.

I’m going to stop here, and post some photos  on facebook from our walk today. I mostly took pix of the various forms of house architecture from around this area of Berlin, Lichterfelde. It’s one of the more wealthy parts, suburb in feel but part of the city proper, about a half hour by s bahn, or u bahn.   There’s old villas beside modern houses and apartment buildings,many styles. Lots of flowers. Some old estates were subdivided into smaller plots when housing was at a premium after the war. Some old mansions were converted into apartments and now some are condos. I gather that not much in this area on the outskirts was bombed. 

Tomorrow I hope I'll be up early enough to edit the entry about Ahmad Joudeh, the dancer. I have to correct a couple of the links, but meanwhile, it’s up there for you to check out, complete with links to the Dutch news pieces, a few you tubes, and a couple of his performance a few years ago on So You Think You Can Dance, and a couple of magazine articles. I think the two Dutch nieuwsuur  video pieces are the most interesting and moving, although I think I mislabeled a couple of the links.   And then there are the two other stories about the Nansen Award Winners, Joannes Klas and Maryluz Schloeter Paredes.  The one on Parades has been translated into Spanish by Ceci, my Mexican compadre (comadre?) , and I believe the other one has been translated into a couple of languages, not sure which ones by people in the group. Did I tell you how many languages are represented between the seventeen of us? Twelve.