Thursday, August 25, 2011

Auf Wiedersehen

Time flies by when you're having fun. Two months are up, it's time to go home. My last week in Berlin was inevitably tinted with my impending departure, and I thought that this meant that the time had come to try and do all things left on my list. Maybe I could finally go to that little Italian cafe by my house where the old Berliners sit outside on the sidewalk, drinking espressos and eating fresh pastas. Maybe I should finally travel to another city in Germany. Maybe I should go to that museum or gallery or park or the hundred other places that I just haven't seem to made it to yet. Or, as a friend said, maybe I should finally try that pizza that smells so good at Dirty Harry's.

In truth, though, my last week wasn't a frenzy of activity; instead, I went to nearly all the same places I've gone to during my time here. I met friends at the Wohnzimmer bar in Prenzlauer Berg for one last beer. I ate that good currywurst at the farmer's market. I took an espresso at the same cafe in Mitte, not because it is entirely tasty, but because the tables, chairs, and umbrellas are all particularly nice. A point was reached where I no longer was visiting Berlin but living here--which makes it all the harder to leave.

But this last week wasn't all old news. I visited an abandoned amusement park with Eve, and we road the still-operational park train, viewing fallen dinosaurs, dilapidated rides, and a motionless Ferris wheel, all while traveling in and out of dark forest and over swamps. I kept waiting for Scooby Doo and the gang to pop out and unmask the train conductor. Although, I don't think the somewhat pathetic, old amusement park is a typical Berlin attraction.

And neither is the garish beer garden that we visited afterwards. There I finally found the typical Germans that my language textbook was always talking about: Hans from the slaughterhouse, who has recently lost his job, or Klaudia, who has recently separately from Hans (but a different Hans), and works at the train station. These Germans ate their Wursts, while some others ate their value meals from Burger King, the main restaurant in the beer garden; they also drank little bottles of schnapps and beer from plastic cups. Although we were still in Berlin, it didn't feel that way. And it was great. A Berlin beyond Berlin.

So, in the end, what do I think of Berlin?


The city is by no means perfect, suffering from many of the same problems as any major metropolis, and I was frequently bested late at night by the otherwise phenomenal transportation system; however, Berlin is unbelievably livable, offering a quality of life that far exceeds most cities in America.

Yet, what also made this trip so enjoyable was the people. I enjoyed introducing the city to my family, taking my sister to the Magnet Club in Kreuzberg for her birthday to see Destroyer. And one of my best weeks here was with Maddie; together we faced the task of ordering pastries from the old, West Berliners, who had no time for my poorly spoken German--obviously, though, Apple Pastry, the chiding and chastising were worth it. In other pastry news, I will never forget my early, early morning croissant with Eve, which was quite possibly the best croissant I've ever had, and Eve might even agree, and she's French, so she knows what she's talking about. And then there is Mai, who was always pissing, made a damn fine tortilla, and maybe likes beer more than I do. Maybe. On a rainy night in Berlin, which were so many, we took refuge in Cafe Cinema, doing homework and, natürlich, drinking beer. Our conversation that evening was "very nice," and somehow, at the end of it all, I inadvertently made off with the menu, finding it in my bag the next day. And because of all of this, because of the time I've spent in this city and the time I've spent with friends, old and new, when I get off the plane tomorrow and look into my bag back in Philadelphia, I know that I'll find that I've also made off with a little bit of Berlin.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jewish Museum Berlin

My favorite museum in Berlin is the Jewish Museum, which, since its opening in 2001, deftly combines architecture, art exhibitions, and the history of the Jewish people in Germany.

The first Jewish museum in Berlin, opened on Oranienburger Street in 1933, was closed five years later by the Nazis. After the war and various political battles, Daniel Libeskind was chosen to design the new museum. Drawing on various items from Jewish history, he based his proposal on the Gedenkbuch (Memorial Book), which lists all the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Moreover, the museum's division into sixty sections is an allusion to the sixty sections of Walter Benjamin's One Way Street. Several aspects of his design move the museum beyond one's expectations, especially if one considers Libeskind's impressive incorporation of empty space into the museum.

The Memory Void, one of three rooms that captures this empty space, contains an installation that is entitled, "Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves)," by Israeli artist, Menashe Kadishman. In the concrete room, whose walls extend three or four stories upwards, over 10,000 open-mouthed, crude iron faces spread out to cover the floor. Kadishman's intention is an attempt to represent the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe. And, as one gazes on all these open-mouths, while only hearing the blankness of a concrete void, this loss is heard.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

One Little Goat

One little goat, one little goat:
The angel of death came,
and slew the slaughterer,
who killed the ox,
that drank the water,
that extinguished the fire,
that burned the stick,
that beat the dog,
that bit the cat,
that ate the goat,
which my father bought for two zuzim.
--Had Gadya, Verse 9

This gloomy Sunday brought me to the Neue Nationalgalerie, a museum for modern art, showcasing key works from Picasso, Kirchner, Beckmann, Dix, Klee, Bacon, Nay, Newman, Stella, and Richter; however, since the museum doesn't have enough space to exhibit their entire collection all at once, the current paintings and sculptures range from 1900 - 1945. (Later in 2011, the museum will exhibit its postwar collection.)

I knew the collection was impressive--the website boasts that the Neue Nationalgalerie is one of the most important museums in Europe. Yet, it was that gloomy Sunday that prompted me to go to the museum; I had heard there was an excellent selection of German expressionism, and I thought that just maybe this interminably dismal Berlin weather could be cured with a little color.

I wasn't disappointed. The first paintings I saw swelled with color and were possibly my favorite in the entire museum. Two artists had depicted the same Jewish song, the Had Gadya (One Little Goat), which is sung at the end of the Passover Seder. The "cumulative" story follows a father who buys a goat that is then eaten by a cat that is then bitten by a dog that is then beat with a stick, and so on. The destruction continues and continues until God steps in, intervening, you know, divinely, as he is wont to do.

And although God does punctuate the last scene of each artist's depiction, i.e., the series first done by El Lissitzky (1890-1941) in 1936 and the later one done by Frank Stella (1936-) in 1984, what must the atheist think, if she acknowledges this accumulation of goat-cat-dog destruction but without hope of divine intervention? What if she can't accept that tenth verse? Stella's series gives a riposte insofar as he is able to stretch the most whimsical forms over dire situations. And then they're not that dire. And how does a cat eat a goat?

Besides the wonder of these first paintings, the architecture of the gallery is remarkable in itself. Designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1968, the museum is said to be the architect's last great building, opening a year before his death. Naturally, the building reminded me of the towers of glass and steel that stand before Lake Michigan in Chicago; however, rather than the pricey condos and offices that occupy those spaces, this Berlin gallery has been constructed with the experience of "looking at art" in mind. This experience, which can often become laborious, leaving you feeling rushed, bored, trapped, claustrophobic, or, as Ferlinghetti puts it, "constipated," this museum is noticeably different.

In the Neue Nationalgalerie, the whole first floor is reserved for changing installations, such as the one above, The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain, designed by Frank Stella and Spanish architect and engineer, Santiago Calatrava. What Mies is so good at comes through here: the creation of space. You experience space that is light and freeing. Artworks don't come here to die, they haven't been sent to solitary confinement, but are here let be.

The gallery, however, is completely underground. But you don't feel trapped in a cavern, because another feature of the museum is the utilization of natural light that both illuminates the paintings and ensures their integrity isn't compromised in any way. These aspects of the building's design come together to provide an ideal aesthetic experience; and, if it all still does become a bit too much, you can just sit down in any of those iconic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs.

And, although I'm not sure why, I didn't have to pay admission. It might have been because I'm a Goethe-Institut student, but more likely, the woman at the ticket desk, recognizing what a fine admirer of art I surely am, knew what a travesty it would be to make me pay. Let other museums take notice.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dr. Pong

Through a friend of a friend, we were privy to the following wild scene last Monday night: after walking through unmarked doors, my friends and I found an all-inclusive, all-night ping-pong extravaganza, topped off with cheap beers and a decent DJ. But what is an all-inclusive, all-night ping-pong extravaganza? Let me fill you in.

Put down a refundable deposit of $5 and you get a paddle, and if you are able to return that paddle at the end of the night then you get the deposit back, if you aren't able to return the paddle, at least you will have some kind of story to tell. Once you have your paddle--and, let's be honest, your beer--you are ready to go. When you hear the knocking of paddles on the ping-pong table, then a new game is about to begin. Find a spot in the line of 20 or 30 people and begin your dance around the maypole. On your turn, if you successfully return the ball, then you are free to remain in the game--otherwise, you take your seat on the sidelines, drink your beer, and watch the match play out. As more and more players are eliminated, the action increases, growing quicker and quicker until the game is a mad scramble around a beer-slicked floor, and half the success is just being able to get from one side of the table to the other, which is, of course, easier said than done. Indeed, as I watched the game (lucky me, I wasn't able to return my first ball and was thus immediately benched), one overzealous man, sprinting with beer and paddle in hand, fell; he shattered his bottle, tore his arm to bits, and most likely very nearly died. But with a few paper towels thrown on the ground and the glass shards kicked to the side, the game could go on. And it did.

In all, our group of potential ping-pong all-stars didn't fare too well; although, Mr. Chicken did make it to the final four in one game, while Eve claimed (though no one can verify this) that she had made it to the finals in her last outing. Nevertheless, winning or losing is hardly the point here. We weren't ping-pong champs, but we enjoyed ourselves all the more. Mit Dr. Pong haben wir Spass gemacht!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Musik ist höhere Offenbarung als alle Weisheit und Philosophie.
--Ludwig van Beethoven

The other day I was taking a nice stroll through the Tiergarten (quite literally, the Garden of Animals, which is itself a sight to behold) when I stumbled upon this beast: the Beethoven-Haydn-Mozart-Denkmal. Whoa! Something about the almost clear sky and the clouds that cut across it, something about the lush greens rolled out across this city park, something about the air of old trees and new flowers made the sight of this statue overwhelming.

The statue as we see it now is the product of restoration efforts that were only completed in 2007. The ten meter high statue was originally erected in 1904, and established by Rudolf and Wolfgang Siemering, in honor, of course, of the three composers: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Reconstruction became necessary after the destruction of Berlin in the Second World War. Many of the 145 individual parts making up the statue had to be restored due to bullet holes and other damage. Some parts that were entirely lost, e.g., Mozart's nose (his poor schnoz!), had to be recreated from images in old postcards and historical photos. Nevertheless, the statue stands today, beautiful as ever. So, go and pay homage to these musical brutes.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Winterfeldtplatz Markt

Trocken Brot macht Wangen rot.
[Dry bread makes cheeks red.]
--German Proverb

I am fortunate to live near one of the largest farmer's markets in Berlin. Since 1990 the square has hosted a market every Wednesday and Saturday, where you can buy fresh-local-bio fruits and veggies, artisinal meats and cheeses, roast bratwursts, fishes, linens, silver polish, jewelry, antiques, espressos, flowers, breads--in short, anything your little heart could possibly desire.

The market takes place in Winterfeldtplatz, which is in northern Shöneberg. The square was named in 1893 after Prussian General Hans Karl von Winterfeldtplatz, and it's been named such ever since.

The market is so resplendent with goods, you are likely to forget what you came for in the first place. This is the certainly the case for me. Not only must I constantly be forming the correct sentences in German for what I want to order (but they never to come out right anyway) and thinking about the quantity in terms of grams and kilos, I also must contend with the din and aroma of the espresso machine, which works on me like some Pavlovian trigger--so now I have an espresso, but I have no idea what I was going to buy, or even what I've bought. Nevertheless, I make my way through the 250 stalls, where I am stopped by the redolent "fragrance" of some kind of German cheese that has been sitting in the sun for a few hours. I pass on this cheese, but I do buy a locally made cream cheese mixed with garlic, onions, chives, dill, and parsley. It is the best cream cheese you'll probably never have. Anyway, I've been slathering it on baguettes with cured salmon that I also picked up at the market, and topping that off with cucumbers and capers. Or, as one would say in German, "Lecker!"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fahrräder überall!

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them. ... Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.
--Ernest Hemingway

If I remember Berlin as seen from my bike, the memory will seem like a dream I had once. I was lucky enough to be provided a bike by my host, and cruising down the streets of this German city in the sun of summertime has no experience to call its equal. Pedaling through Berlin brings you past countless historical landmarks, astounding architecture, bakery after bakery, boutiques, theaters, artworks, people. You see arguments and bawdiness, you see the expected streets, buildings, stations, and shops, but you also see the beautiful. From the saddle, riding through the different neighborhoods, you are offered a glimpse of the world--das Fahhrad here becomes a microcosmic vehicle.

Because the city generously caters to bikers, the experience is so pleasurable. Throughout the city, there are bike lanes; however, these bike lanes aren't like the kinds you might be familiar with in Philly or Chicago, where they remain part of the street, precariously placed between speeding cars and parked cars: sooner or later, you will either be flattened or "doored." In contrast, the bike lanes in Berlin are part of the sidewalk, keeping you away from the flow of cars, especially on busy streets. In addition to this ingenious practice, bike lanes are also outfitted with special bike traffic lights, which are just kind of awesome.

Indeed, American city bikers would be amazed at the attitude towards bikes here. Do you have to lug around a 5 Lb. U-lock? No. Bikes are usually locked up with a very thin chain, and if people are just going into a shop, then they don't even bother to lock it up; and when they return to their bikes, they are still there! Bike theft happens here, of course, but not to the same, depressing degree as in Philadelphia, Chicago, and, I imagine, other American cities. So, to any future travelers to Berlin, get a bike!

Tip: You can rent a bike here, but it is expensive, and you usually are then riding a bike with some kind of obnoxious advert on it. It's better, I think, to buy a bike. There are two options:
1. Die Flohmärkte (flea market): you can buy a used bike here, but the quality is sometimes suspect and the bikes may have been stolen. The second option is better.
2. There are two bike stores that sell used bikes for cheap.
Froschrad (Frog Bike) -- near Görlitzer Bahnhof in Kreuzberg
"Used Bike" -- near Schönleinstr Bahnhof also in Kreuzberg.
There are plenty more stores, however, these two have come well recommended.