Monday, July 27, 2009

Dresden, Turning Towards Home

We're on our last week in Germany.  We fly out on Friday, and I have to say that home and thoughts of home have been tugging at me.  I have loved being here.  I've resolved (and I swear I'll follow through) to actually pick up a course in this language so that I can speak in something other than broken traveler's German to folks who look at my broad shoulders and my blonde hair and assume I live here.  I need to come back.

But we're not done yet.  And this last weekend, we went to Dresden and Leipzig, staying overnight in a hotel next door to the reconstructed Frauenkirche.  As always, Dresden was intense.  I hadn't been there since restorers first started sorting out the charred pile of rubble that was,  along with a small, standing fragment of the nave,  what remained of the Frauenkirche after the 1945 firestorm.   The DDR had decided to leave the site in ruins.  I well remember that last visit.  We were driving, and it was a hot, brilliant day.  We parked our car in an underground garage and walked out into the scalding sun, and even that--coming up from basement darkness into heat--was creepy.  

Depending on whose account you believe, anywhere from about 25 thousand to over a hundred thousand people died over the course of two days in the Allied firebombing of Dresden, incinerated, or smothered in basements due to the inferno's hunger for oxygen. Depending on whose account you believe, the city's destruction was anything from necessary  to prevent a second Battle of the Bulge to a criminal act of terrorism on an almost-undefended civilian population.   I've never understood military strategy.  It has always seemed to me to be a peculiar sort of sin to apply our logic to killing other human beings in an orderly fashion, but I'm not naive enough to believe that war is always preventable.  It just--well, it makes my head spin.   Kurt Vonnegut spoke at my college graduation when I got my BA in 1974.  And so it goes.

At any rate, before the firebombing, Dresden--whatever else it was or was not--was a cultural center, a stunning baroque city.  When I saw it the last time before my visit this weekend, its scars from those awful two days and its decidedly un-charming DDR rebuild were highly evident.  I stood in the blazing sun and knew I was in a haunted place. We wandered in the crypt of the Frauenkirche, which was all that was really tour-able by the public then.  The ruins of the church stood in the middle of nothing in the middle of a city.  There were blank, Soviet-looking buildings around it, and a handful of structures with baroque detailing on them.  

It's different, now.

The Frauenkirche, totally restored, anchors a city center that looks like Prague--which is about right; Prague, which took far less of a hit in the War, was the city film makers used for the pre-firebombed Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.  Ken and I had a beer at an outdoor cafe next to the church, listened to its bells ring for a wedding, and watched the wedding party arrive in a white-ribboned limo.  We heard a glorious choral concert from the Bavarian Radio Chorus that night in the restored church's spectacular acoustic, sitting right next to the old cross from the top of the dome--the one they keep inside now as a reminder.  It was withered by the heat of the firestorm, but now people light prayer candles and leave them glittering around it like burnt-down coals. 

We'd eaten dinner in a beer hall across the way from the church, a place so perfectly old-German that if the exquisite woodwork in the room where we had our sauerbraten hadn't been so unscarred and perfectly new-looking, you'd swear it had been there since the church was first built.  And from the well-placed windows, you couldn't see anything but lovingly restored and rebuilt baroque and Renaissance-looking architecture.  But still.

In Dresden, there's always a But Still.  That afternoon, my organist husband had done what he often does--dragged me to an organ recital, and it was a fine one, at the Kreuzkirche, a place not far from the Frauenkirche.  The guy playing was HOT, and the instrument was tonally exciting.  He played a bunch of jazz take-offs on favorite Bach pieces that were both fun to listen to and really smart, interesting music: cheerful stuff.  Heavens, though, the heartbreaking Kreuzkirche!  It would have been rude to take a picture, so I'll tell you what it looks like.

Outside it's the kind of baroque church you'd expect to see in its newly re-baroque'd surroundings.  But it was restored early on, under the DDR, and they didn't do the computer-aided, bring-back-every-gilded-flourish kind of job that gave us the rescued Frauenkirche.  Inside, you can see what was left of the old church from the floor on up, for about twenty feet.  But it's blackened.  And beyond that battered original stone is a kind of cottage-cheese-looking grey concrete that you often see in this neck of the woods in buildings restored during that period.  The curves of the church's roof are defined in its almost-fuzzy texture.  It's as if the church were dissolving into a ghost of itself.

Statues are without noses.  Columns are battered.  The artwork in back of the altar is in fine shape, but adorning (if that's the word) the choir loft is a row of angel faces.  I think they must have been meant to be singing.  But some of them are missing the backs of their heads.  They're broken and charred in places.  They look like they're crying out in pain.

So here's the question: which is a real restoration of the town?  Is the eerie perfection of the new alte markt a sort of educational TV Disneyland?  Or is it there because the world couldn't stand it if it weren't--if it were more like the inside of the Kreuzkirche--if it broke your heart just to think about it?  I don't know the answer to that question.  

Like I said, Dresden is intense.  And I don't know what to think about what's really going on there now, except that it haunts me.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

What a Buncha Babies!!

Two more weeks in Germany.  Half of me is homesick and looking forward to the arrival back in NY...and half of me wants an intensive language course and to Never Come Home.  

It's an odd state.  It feels kinda restless.

The oddity is compounded by our adopted nabe, which I've grown to love like I love my own at home, although it is overrun with BABIES.  Babies here, babies there, babies everywhere.  Any woman under forty-five seems to have about a fifty percent chance of being so pregnant that her poking-out belly button is showing through her distended t-shirt.  I think I've mentioned before that Prenzlauer Berg is Baby Central--the highest birthrate in all of Germany.  There are good schools here, it seems.  Not to mention Something In The Air.

Now, I'd be a wee bit nervous if I hadn't aged out of the baby production thing a while back. Thank the Lord, I don't have a dog in this particular fight.  But Heavens!  Every morning, I wake up to someone pre-verbal ululating in one of the always-bustling cafes across the street.  It's that ahhh-ahhh-ahhh thing that babies do the way birds greet the dawn with song.  And I get up and look out my window to see the parade o' prams.  We did the local flea markets today, and on the way home, a toddler in a stroller tragically lost her purple balloon (OK--I'll admit I liked hearing her complain about the "luft ballon" just like the old Nena song).  Her young, uber-hip mom got her another one, which so angered the equally tiny son of a neighboring couple that he tried to stick her up for it.  His folks, exhibiting what Young German Parents Do Right, averted the potential meltdown by picking him up and sweeping him away from temptation after he swatted the luft ballon owner. Hard.  And then the tram came.   Babies, babies, babies.

I asked my husband if he felt old today.  He responded in the affirmative.  Me, too.

Slate grey sky outside now.  A wild, miniature rain storm (most of them over here seem to be miniature compared to American ones) swept over from just west of the TV tower as we were finishing our dinner out on the terrace.  The temperature dropped about fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes (farenheit).  And we finished the dead-ripe peaches we picked up at the green market yesterday inside.

Dinner tonight?  O, we just had a little filet mignon...really.  Got it at that same green market yesterday and it was expensive, but you don't need a lot of it.  And there are these amazing wild mushrooms everywhere in Germany just now, so I threw them in the beurre noir that I made to go with the filets and cooked up some noodles with sage and brown butter and tossed a big salad full of local greens, cukes and tomatoes.  The greens you can get at farmer's markets here are as good as having your own garden, no kiddin'.   Proud to say that the sage came from our Berlin garden--a pot of sage and a pot of basil I bought and have been tending to on our terrace.  However will I abandon it in two weeks?

On the other hand, I do miss the creek and Randoradio LOTS.   Lots.  And this place is just FULL of babies!    

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Greenmarket, Prenzlauer Berg...turning into a local

...or maybe the title of this blog entry should be I Got Kissed By A Drunken Iranian (or someone claiming to be Iranian).

I don't know.  He looked kind of Iranian.  He was certainly drunk, and merrily amplifying that state with a tasty-looking mug of dark beer.  He'd been busy shaking Ken's hand when he asked if I was the wife, grabbed me by the shoulders, and planted a beery bus on each of my cheeks, muttering all the while in German about how pretty I was.  It was one of those travel moments that you'd really like to see on the Rick Steves shows they run nonstop on public TV at marathon time.   One asks oneself: What Would Rick Do?

"He said he was from Iran," said Ken.

"I see."  I said.  And we wandered on.  To quote the sound collage at the beginning of Random Madness:

What's the significance?  I DON'T KNOW.

It's been that kind of day.  We started out with currywurst (the definitive Berlin street food) at a historic imbiss (snack) stand under a U-Bahn stop about a mile from our flat.  The place has been dishing out the bratwurst drenched in mildly sweet, curry-flavored ketchup with a sprinkling of curry powder on top since 1901 or so, outlasting two world wars and the DDR besides.  I know what you're thinking if you haven't spent time in Berlin.  You are thinking this: why would anyone want to eat ketchup and curry powder?  And I don't have an easy answer to your question except to tell you that I sat right down at the stand's shared tables to chow down mightily upon the stuff--and so did a French speaking couple across from us, and an English-speaking Asian family next to us...AND one of the ubiquitous Prenzlauer berg babies was getting his first lessons in currywurst from his local-looking parents one table over.

Currywurst: it's not just for breakfast anymore.  And it's really kind of good.  NOT LIKE Berlinerweisse, which is another famed local specialty--wheat beer (OK so far) with a nice big slug of red or green kinda berry-flavored syrup in it (ew).  It's served in a goblet with a fat straw, and it tastes like soda pop.  So if it's hot outside, you'll suck it right down like Orange Crush (which it's not unlike) and then get up and fall over--or worse, decide to have another.  If you are in Berlin with someone who has been here before, chances are he will talk you into drinking one.  I'd say Berlinerweisse is a joke the locals play on the touristas, but I've seen folks who give every appearance and sound of being From Here on the other end of one of those wide straws.   

But back to the green market!  I did have a good drink there: something called an Erdbeerenbowle.  Berlin is strawberry-crazed just now, and intensely fragrant little local berries (erdberren) are everywhere in the city: in supermarkets, in green markets, and in odd little stands that sell nothing else and look like giant strawberries themselves.  The gentleman who served my drink to me ladled it out of a pretty glass punch bowl.  According to the sign next to his stand, it's made of French champagne, light white local wine, and chopped stawberries that have been allowed to steep in the mixture.  It's both beautiful and delicious.   We'll be having it high atop the Potter building soon.

We also stuck our nose into the Kulturbraurai, another GAGA-ish institution.  It's an old brewery repurposed as an entertainment center, with clubs and places to see film.  Seems a night-time kinda scene.  I took some snaps.  

Anyway, I have some peas to shell for our dinner, and a HUGE bag of local mushrooms to cook up with cream sauce, so I'm going to get hopping.  


Sunday, July 5, 2009

July 4th, Not Asbury Park Even A Little Bit

I've only been away from the States on July 4th one other time.  We were in Amsterdam, and had decided to visit the Heineken brewery, where there is a hard-drinking beer sampling at the tour's end.  Around went the mugs and the small bits of Dutch cheese, and there was a Special Prize announced for anyone whose birthday it was on that day.  Ken and I were sitting amidst a group of Very Dazed backpackers (one of whom had actually lit up a joint in the lift on his way up to the tour).  And the Very Dazed backpackers began to chant, "USA!  USA!  USA!" There were a few loud exhortations about how All Americans There should get a Special Prize because it was our National Birthday.  And then more drunken, stoned hooting.

O, Lord.  We stared into our beers.  This was just before the Bush administration ran our Ship of State onto the rocks. That episode also marked the first time I was ever out of the States and really REALLY embarrassed to be an American.  This was before Iraq and torture, though.  This was before Ken and I had our conversations about how we should just let the nice folks at the Edinburgh Festival (our next overseas jaunt) assume that we WERE Canadians, as Scots often will, hearing an accent that sounds like ours.

We spent the rest of that day in Amsterdam pretending we'd never heard of the Fourth of July.

It's different this year in Berlin.

First of all, we have a brilliant statesman for a President.  OK, a lefty like me is going to have some issues with the guy, a man who's essentially a centrist Democrat who divides ideas into smart and dumb instead of left and right--but I refuse to be part of the circular firing squad that has been the American Left Wing for far too long.  Loyal opposition is one thing.  Essentially teaming up with the character assassins on the right without thinking about the results of policy is something else.  But this is no time to get into all that.  

Let's face it--Obama rocked Berlin, not too long ago.  And despite whatever qualms anyone might have about him, America looks  radically different over here than it used to, and it's a HUGE change for the better.  For real.  

Last night, we went to hear an organ concert.  I happen to love organ music, even when it's not mixed into the background of an Arcade Fire track.  Unfortunately, this one was a little bit like watching paint dry until the very last piece, Smetana's nationalistic "The Moldau".  That rocked.  And we walked back to our apartment.  At Alexanderplatz, a Michael Jackson impersonator was moonwalking amidst the roses and candles at the local shrine to MJ. 

Back at our apartment, a cool breeze blew in through the terrace, where we sat outside listening to Randoradio--Treavor Hasting's excellent July 4th show.  It felt good to hear something American and 4th of July-ish.  Treavor put on The Comedian Harmonists for us during voice breaks, and Robyn Hitchcock, of course, who defies national boundaries.  

And you are not going to believe this, but I swear it's true--somewhere in this city last night, there were fireworks.  We didn't see them, but we heard them for sure.

Off to Museum Island today...    

Friday, July 3, 2009

Holiday in Berlin, Full-blown

So I've had the Zappa song on my brain ever since the plane landed...was it only yesterday?  The house sitters are taking care of the cats High Atop The Potter Building (and probably drinking up all our cocktail makings, but that's fine.  They deserve it).

Yes, Rando fans, you are hearing me pre-recorded this month.  And Tom Jones, just shut up about that being redundant.  I KNOW it is, but it's what folks say.  So there.

The good news is that you get to hear about what it's like for this American girl to live for a month just slightly east of where the Berlin Wall used to be, something that would have been inconceivable (not to mention downright impossible) for me as a child.  As a child, I watched movies about people who got machine gunned for sneaking over The Wall, people who were SPIES.  As a child, the kids in my neighborhood played War, which was always WWII, and they were always fighting the Krauts, a word that my parents told me was offensive, but I didn't need them to tell me that.  I knew it in my stomach.  

My grandma was German, and the first time I was ever in Germany and walked into a restaurant serving old-fashioned food, I got a nose full of a smell I hadn't smelled since Nana was alive. I was born in New York. I don't live here. I've been here three times, counting this trip.  I don't speak the language, except to say hello to cats.  But I'm from here.  I am.

Enough time has passed since the War that when you say you are of German heritage, folks think more about the "Do you want to pet my monkey?" skit on SNL than make stupid assumptions about racism and anti-Semitism.

So, that was pretty heavy, but there you have it.

And it's sort of what's happened here: big shopping centers in what used to be a no-man's zone where the Wall was.  Buildings that stood roofless after WWII now fashionably rehabbed and minus the shrapnel scars I saw even eight years ago, the last time I was back.  And a kick-ass Russian restaurant a few blocks from the temporary home of the Potter building, here in East Berlin.  No irony served with the borscht.  

I had a gin and tonic tonight, for those of you on cocktail patrol.  I wasn't into Visiting My Roots at that moment.  It's hotter than the hinges of Hell here, and nothing's AC.  But that's OK.

We were at the Berlin Zoo today, an old-fashioned people-centric place where you can actually see the animals up close and personal.  It may not be as kind as the more modern zoos where all you ever see is a tail sticking out from behind some authentic African fauna, but it was a fine place to spend a hot afternoon.  There was a blunt, honest sign in the lion house, advising visitors that the big cats will pee on them if they bother the big cats.  Lions can do that.   And in the right mood, I understand the temptation.

Think I'm going to have another sit out on the balcony and then hit the hay.  It's scary late here.

I'll keep you all posted.