Too much or too little

Greetings. I’m posting on Saturday night March 21st, just around the time of the spring equinox. Normally this time of year, celebrated in the Old Calendar as the moment when light and darkness are in balance and light moves into ascendency, is a happy season for me. I love long summer evenings (light mornings less so) and often in the northern climes, these longer days are accompanied by an increase of gloriously social outside activities. Here in Berlin, we typically see restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalks onto well-worn benches, the long-awaited openings of Bier Gartens around town, the beginning of a beloved season of festivals and concerts and general pagan merriment of all types.

But, of course, not so fast this year.

As I check in with friends and family around the globe (thank the good lord for the internet; Tim Berners-Lee, you are a savior), there appear to be two main categories of people reacting to this time-out-of-mind virus phenomenon; those who now have way too much to do (people living in close proximity with extended family, for example, most critically with children who must now be entertained 24/7) and those who have…the completely opposite problem, that of too little, of almost total isolation for an indefinite period. For the former, I am predicting either a bumper crop of divorces and/or babies; for the latter (where I find myself), I am predicting an equally serious problem of chronic self-talking, heavy self-medicating with drugs of choice, and a lot of really really bad hair days.

But I have a suggestion, the reason for this post. What I am finding truly helpful and uplifting these days is….watching various incarnations of “Britain’s Got Talent” and “America’s Got Talent” and “Got Talent Champions” from the past few years. This new binge craze has taken me completely by surprise; hence my sharing this idea with you.

Let me be clear – I’m really not a popular culture gal, never have been. I’m only now learning about hits that were big in 2014. I don’t know gangnam style from hip-hop from K-pop. I’ve never been cool and I’m certainly not going to start now, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But @Got Talent is about something more, something deeper, something that might have a thing or two to teach us about ourselves and how we respond to the current moment. And hence my recommendation of these superficially superficial shows to you.

First, these programs are about people taking enormous risk. Most of the folks who walk out on that stage have probably never performed in any venue even vaguely like that huge auditorium where they find themselves. They’ve been in their little village in Cornwall or Louisiana or Lithuania, honing their hobby and nursing their passion for a long long time. They are nurses or schoolchildren or morticians or some other career that has kept them from their dream but this is their Big Chance and they are going for it, guns blazing. I can’t even begin to imagine the courage it must take to walk out on that stage in from of Simon Cowell and his various collections of colleagues to say nothing of a few thousand strangers.

Second, it is about people experiencing extraordinary transformation in real time – through the belief and the reality, that two minutes literally can change one’s life. A small number of these folks literally go from rags to riches in front of our very eyes. I have googled some of the younger participants I’ve seen on earlier seasons and discovered that they went almost immediately from bobby socks and pink sparkly Nikes to packed houses in Vegas and seven-figure recording deals with major studios. Astonishing.

But third, the part, the part I like the absolute best, is about the power of intent and focus.  This is the part where Simon Cowell (this is, of course, his show, his empire, his little retirement fund on legs, clearly) stops the vocal performances and takes a teachable moment with the performers. You can see it on his face as the song begins. He is listening, listening carefully, but he isn’t happy. He shakes his head and waves his right hand and the astonishingly good audio support suddenly stops cold. The audience doesn’t make a sound. The momentarily decapitated performer stands mutely on the stage, staring at Simon, and he stares back. He asks for another song the participant may have readied. Sometimes he suggests a song they don’t know at all and gives them an hour to prepare and a bottle of water. And then he steps back and the magic begins.

So far, at least in the clips and episodes that youtube provides, this is when the performer steps into the breech and  seizes the moment. S/he starts, wobbly for a brief moment, but then finds his/her perch and leans into the piece. The song gets better and better, the volume increases, the audience sits up and takes notice, and the performer digs deep within themselves and discovers a place they never knew they had.  You can see it on their face and in their bodies. Simon smiles his secret small smile. And then the piece ends and there’s an auditorium full of people, screaming and clapping and a stage filled with a very happy person and his/her mother, and the rest is history.

Why am I telling you all this? Because, kids, this is our @Got Talent moment. In our own strange and wonderful way, we are now on the stage of the most transformational experience in our personal histories and perhaps the last hundred years or so. Our actions now moving forward will determine who lives and who dies in our community, in our country, and around the world, and more importantly, what society will look like moving forward. We are being called upon to risk, to lean in, and to be transformed in (hopefully) a positive way that will forever change our relationship to our lives, to the lives of those around us in society, and to our planet.

Okay, enough with the heavy. In the meantime, there’s fear and boredom and anxiety and not enough toilet paper and too much pasta. To alleviate all this, just get started with a little Talent and get yourself a little Simon Cowell. Go to youtube and look for the tape for best comedians in 2016. You need this, believe me. You will laugh your a$$ off. And that in and of itself will be a blessing for the hour or so that you will be able to ignore the world’s dire messages or or kids fighting in the dining room, or the fact that you might not see your dear ones until the Solstice.

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Nativity scenes for Brad and Carol

Dear Readers, I am dedicating this post to my dear friends Brad and Carol in California. Carol has a collection of roughly 300 nativity scenes which she proudly displays at the holidays; I have been tasked with trying to find some in various countries where I’ve traveled but so far I’ve always come up short. I am using this medium to share some pictures with them because it works well to be able to display photographs in a good space that allows for  considerable detail.

These five nativity scenes, among many others, live at the Museum of European Culture in Berlin, the topic of a previous post. However in that post I only showed one of these lovely creations, and here is a review of all the ones I was able to photograph.

The first scene is from the Provence region of southern France, and features “santons,” or small saints, typical of the region. Farmers in regional garb and various tradesmen complete the scene around the Holy Family. This is a mid-twentieth century imagining of life in more medievally times:

The second scene is a terraced nativity scene made in Munich in the 1970s but modeled after an original from Moravia, Czech Republic:

The third scene is from Mexico, a piece of ceramic based on the theme of the tree of life. This lovely artifact was produced by the potters of Metepec, a Mexican city. It’s nearly a meter (yard) in height:

This fourth delightful scene is from southern Italy. I am most fond on the donkey on the left,  the kind of donkey who always has to have the last word:

And finally, the most unique scene in the museum, in my opinion. Crafted in the early years of the 20th century in Spain, this stone rendering requires the maximum imagination:

Carol and Brad, Let me know which one you want, and I’ll begin negotiations with the museum posthaste.

Best to you both, and much love.

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Action conquers fear…

If you’re anything like me….and since you’re reading my blog, you probably are….you are sitting on the edge of your metaphoric seat, anxiously scanning your favorite websites and waiting for the proverbial Shoe To Fall. I know I am. As my dear friend J and I would say, “The vectors aren’t good.” Sitting here on a Tuesday morning, the new virus is spreading with irrational hops around the globe, ice flows are melting, racism is rearing its ugly head in Germany again, and the Orange Menace seems less prepared than ever to deal with any of it. (Nice picture of the Taj, though. Like the color-coordinated tie and belt.)

Okay, so in cases like this, the Sages of the Ages are pretty clear. Set the horrors aside, find your inner peace, and try to do something positive for yourself and others if possible. My decision a couple weeks ago was to spend more time in Berlin’s museums, perhaps one of the most astonishing collections of culture available anywhere in the world. To that end, I bought a year pass to the State Museums, a group of 18 (one is currently closed) museums federally operated. I have promised myself I will visit at least one a month, and I will spend more time communing with Beauty. I suggest this for your consideration as well.

This past Sunday I headed off to to one of the more obscure cousins in the collection – the MEK, Museum Europaischer Kulturen, Museum of European Culture. It’s located in the suburb of Dahlem Dorf, one of the higher priced spreads in town, and nearby the Freie Univeristat. Here’s a shot of the rather imposing front entrance:

I’d been a bit wary of this museum because I was concerned it might be a thinly veiled effort to promote white christian culture at the expense of everything and everyone else. But I was pleasantly surprised. While not surprisingly a lot of the collection on view focused on German culture, there was a concerted effort to place the items in a pan-European and pan-cultural perspective. In the video introduction, I saw this poignant photograph of former Chancellor Willy Brandt at a holocaust memorial:

This moment, known as the Kniefall von Warshau, occurred on December 7, 1970 when Brandt attended the dedication of a monument in honor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Apparently quite spontaneously, Brandt went to his knees and stayed their silently for about 30 seconds according to witnesses. Brandt was in Poland to formally acknowledge the borders that had resulted at the end of the Second World War, returning a good bit of real estate to Poland. It seems, however, this moment defined his trip, and perhaps much of his political career.

But in typical German style, I am learning, no moment stays too sober for too long. Nearby these thoughtful ideas hung a poster to “the Ideal European,” i.e.:

Well, at least if the Brits were responsible for cuisine, that’s not a huge loss…

I was impressed that the museum’s collection is currently organized around the idea of migration and cultural contact – a subtle but effect jab, IMHO, at some of the nationalism and xenophobia trying to raise their ugly heads. The exhibit made the point that people have always been moving about the globe in search of better lives, and that the European experience is just all the richer for it. The first item that greets the visitor was this lovely Venetian gondola, dating from around 1910:

Since the collection focuses on “artefacts of European everyday culture and human lived realities from the 18th century until today,” according to their website, I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of local costumes and pottery, much like a standard ethnographic exhibit. I’m only going to torture you with a couple things.

This outfit is gorgeous, for starters, but it also represents an element of European culture I hadn’t heard of before – the “Candlemas Runner,” a part of the Christian liturgical calendar and a harbinger of spring. Together with some other characters I had never heard of – the Kitchen Boys, the Kitchen Girls, the Slapstick Man, the Peep Show Man, the Pea Straw Bear and his Tamer, Horses and Soldiers -this guy walks around the village and “wakes up” spring with that bouquet/wand in his hand. (I seriously want me one of them coats.)

More Christianity here – a special photo for my dear friends Carol and Brad Dewey, a picture of a lovely Christmas nativity creche, this one from the Pulia region of Italy and made of paper mache in the early decades of the 20th century. I am particularly charmed by the expression on the face of the walleyed cow. As a walleye myself, I appreciate the artistic support.

Sadly, this is a small museum and before too long I had made the rounds of its six exhibition halls. I didn’t have enough steps to go home (I aim for at least 6500 each day), so I took myself off to the only place I knew I could walk on a cold rainy day without catching my death – the Mall of Berlin, oddly opened on this Sunday afternoon 13:00-19:00. (I say “oddly” because normally all retail establishments in Germany are closed on Sundays, a custom that takes a bit of getting used to as an American, but one I have come to appreciate with time.) So from sacred to profane, from the high church of Church to the low church of capitalism, off I went to get more exercise and a bit more contact with the world.

However, today the place was buzzing. Buzzing, I say! And I soon found out precisely why. The Mall was throwing a party, and we were all invited. In the atrium area, in addition to the piano player, there was….

a caricaturist, carefully reflecting young love….and perhaps more curiously…

…a small barbershop and shoe shine establishment. There was also, to the left of this shot, two massage chairs and a very long line of hopeful clients. What the heck? I asked the concierge, and he had no idea. Just a way to bring people into the mall, and to soften them up for some last-minute winter sales bargains. To that end, there was even…free champagne (and orange juice, for the non-imbibers). I said to myself, self I said, “Carpe diem.”

So this is my message to you today, dear readers. In these challenging, anxiety-provoking days and weeks, we must try, with ever fiber of our beings, to hang on to the good, the fun, the true, and the true loves. And even if seizing a day feels too long, in this time of tweets, selfies, and ever-breaking news, we can seize the hour, and seize the moment. Try to do that, and I will as well. Cheers, dears, and stay as strong as you can.

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Binge-walking the Christmas Markets

I’ve been pretty Scrooge-like for most of my adult life, shunning Christmas celebrations and festivities with a vengeance, due in large part to a combination of odd family dynamics and disillusionment about Christianity in general and its gross commercialization in particular. But here’s one of those instances where changing geography can change perspective. On my very first visit to Berlin five years ago, good friend K introduced me to the Christmas market at the Schloss Charlottenburg, one of the most scenic and notable of Berlin’s 60+ Christmas markets, and a groupie was born.

Christmas markets, or more properly, Weihnachtsmärkte, are said to be a German creation, starting in Dresden in the 15th century (although there were December markets before then). Now mostly a purview of Germanic countries, they are spreading their tendrils around Europe; I’ve seen them in Vilnius as well as Marseille. Why this hasn’t caught on in a big way in the U.S. is beyond, me, but as they say, “More for us.” A better question might be why has a confirmed Scrooge such as myself…tumbled so hard for these mass-produced over-subscribed commercial events? Simply because….it’s everything I like about Christmas (lights, greenery, music, food, fun, basically the Nordic pagan stuff) and nothing I don’t like (religion, modern kitsch like snowmen, tinsel on palm trees, and bad muzak). Okay, well, there is some bad muzak, but I’m in a forgiving mood. Did you know Bing Cosby rules the European airwaves in December?

As I mentioned, Berlin has a lot of markets, and while I’d like to visit them all, that’s simply not practical. This year I am focusing on the smaller ones, those that are only open one weekend during the month, and often that are sited in interesting places. So far this season, I have visited two design markets (entrance fees, beautiful stuff but really expensive) and seven “street” markets around town, including one at the King’s hunting lodge and another in the courtyard of a local psychiatric hospital. (You won’t be surprised to learn I’ve got at least four or five more in my sights for this coming weekend.) But instead of dragging you through all of them in a dogmatically systematic fashion, I thought I might do just a little compilation to share highlights from the places I have seen so far.

These nutcrackers welcomed me to a lovely little market on Sophienstrasse – on the edge of the Hackescher Markt section of town and one of the few streets unscathed from World War II – hosting a small but very cozy market abutting the one at St. Hedwig’s, the psych hospital. It wasn’t super crowded that afternoon and the stalls featured interesting people selling interesting things. (Spoiler alert: T’s big gift came from this market) Here’s a vendor tenderly sharing his offerings with a seemingly motivated customer:

Because T is a craftsman of some note and we spend a good deal of our time at pen shows with people who appreciate well-made artisan items, I have become more aware of and sensitive to this whole world of usable art. Berlin, not surprisingly, punches above its weight in this regard, and I enjoyed touring two venues with amazing offerings from talented locals. Here at the Weihnachts Rodeo (love the name!), a vendor offered samples of their honey wine. Let me tell you I got pretty soused that particular afternoon; I had no idea there were so many delicious local gins…

Another design fest, this one in the courtyard of the German history museum, featured beautiful items in a beautiful space. Although I didn’t buy the purple hat on the far left, I certainly should have. You might just catch the photographer in the far right.

Rain or shine, the markets are open during the Advent weekends and people come out in droves to enjoy them. There are a few that seem particularly user-friendly for children, and while I normally avoid small people like the plague, I become a bit more tolerant at the holidays since, I am coming to understand, the holidays allow us all to be kids again. Plus, who can resist four Santas playing the french horn?

Another market which advertises itself as a Nordic fair manages to sync wildly different historical eras without a moment of hesitation:

One of the enduring traditions of the markets, of course, are the comestibles. On the “must eat” list for any German establishment are two classics, Gluhwein and Thuringer Bratwurst. While these are normally not a big part of my diet, of course “When in Rome…”

One interesting tradition with the Gluhwein is the “Pfand,” or deposit, one must make for the cup or glass one is drinking the Gluhwein out of. Clearly in the past there must have been a BIG problem with holiday merrymakers simply “forgetting” to return the containers, so now one pays a deposit anywhere between one and four Euros at the time of purchase. The market at Charlottenburg, never one to miss a merchandising opportunity, makes special yearly dated mugs for the smitten tourists to bring home in their luggage. At the less commercially savvy local markets, glass or ceramic mugs just require that you bring them back…or you forfeit your Euro. Happily at one market this past weekend, there were two charming lads already decked out in holiday swag to help you with this little chore:

So on that note, I will leave you with a last look at the Schloss Charlottenburg, some charming stranger enjoying Gluhwein, and my very best wishes for a happy holiday season, wherever you are and however you choose to spend it.

Posted in Berlin, Germany | Tagged | 2 Comments

Dreams come true or “60 past 60”

I’ve given a lot of thought as to whether or not to write this post, but I have come to the conclusion that I have a message that deserves to be heard. The reason for my hesitation is that, in some very significant ways, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my journey to making my personal dreams come true. (Sometimes the house just deals you an ace at the most unexpected moment.) But on the other hand, I truly believe that what I have learned has applicability for almost anyone in almost any situation. As I use to say to my career counseling students at Harvard (a fortunate bunch if ever there were one, although there are always moments at the age of 20 that seem on the verge of utter hopelessness), “If you’re not tied down to a gurney with an IV tube and two broken legs, you probably have some choices that are just much better than others.”

I have categorized the “dream realization sequence” into five stages. (Of course I have – I always put things into boxes or chapters or find paradigms that explain them. Chaos is really not my strong suit.) And so without further ado, here they are:

1.) First, Step One requires that you must HAVE a dream, and by that I mean a genuine waking dream, not a sleeping dream. I remember a while back, ten years or so, when I was peri-suicidal (not a joke; really was; had a plan; told closest friends) and I didn’t have any dreams at all. I couldn’t seem to come up with anything that made any sense or held any promise or allure. (You’ll probably quickly recognize this as depression; it has been the life-long monkey on my back.) And I remember a friend writing to me in this bleak period and saying something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t you rather die in a gutter in New Delhi than not have tried to engage yourself in some way?” And that’s when it hit me. I really really really really did want to travel, and specifically, to travel extensively in Europe, maybe even live there.

2.) Then, *and this may in fact be the most important step of the whole process,* Step Two requires that you have to TRULY BELIEVE that this thing is within your grasp during this lifetime. And that you deserve it and that you will appreciate it fully. You basically have to give yourself and the universe the permission and the invitation for this dream to assume a genuine reality in its own right.

3.) Step Three’s challenge is to DO SOMETHING CONCRETE about that dream and in its pursuit as often as possible. And these need to be actual useful things with outcomes. Watch a video, buy a key ring, look at travel websites, buy a pair of slacks in the desired size, start studying Greek, something, anything, that on a regular basis reminds and inspires you towards your dream and moves you an itty bitty closer to it. It doesn’t matter precisely what you do – it really is the sense of intention and recognition that makes you feel actively engaged in the realization of your dream, even if at a very early stage and even if in very small ways. “Bird by bird,” as Anne Lamott has said so well. Just do it.

4.) As you move forward toward your goal, the ante goes up, of course, sometimes WAY WAY up. Step Four requires that you dedicate a significant portion of your resources to the realization of the dream if required (and of course it usually is). This, naturally, can mean money. And time. And effort. And relationships. And uncertainty. And anxiety. Maybe you have to go back to school, break up with someone, give the cat away, sell the trailer, stop getting your hair colored, whatever it is. In my case specifically, I quit my job, sold my condo and furniture, and moved to another city. I was at a stage in life where this was possible, but just to give you an idea of the scale.

5. And finally, Step Five requires that you understand that whatever you, however perfectly you achieve your goal, your dream, no matter how happy you are, how you would do it again in a heartbeat, there will be a price. As my favorite professor in divinity school, Dr. Bessie Chambers, used to say, “Everything has a price. Everything.” The price might be physical distance, a lower standard of living, loss of status, less security, or strained relationships, and of course, the list goes on and on. I would be surprised if anyone brought their dream to reality without having stressed a number of the threads that keep us woven in society. Realizing a dream often means stepping out of the traditional paths and patterns, and others, even one’s closest companions, will not always (or even often) be happy about that. Many have said to me, “Oh, I could never do that.” Well, of course they could, but they probably won’t, and on top of that, they probably think I’ve taken a few too many stupid pills along the way as well. (Thankfully, all our journeys are ours alone.)

So I made it, dear Reader, I made it through the Looking Glass into my new life. I have and plan to continue traveling extensively in Europe, and at the moment it looks like I’m good to keep living here for a while, thanks to all the saints in heaven and earth, particularly one angel with the initials TW. I have died and gone to heaven; I have walked through the door at the back of the closet and found myself in Narnia. “60 after 60” means I set myself the goal of seeing 60 new cities in Europe after I retired from full-time teaching; I have as well seen some old favorites again which ups that number. It sounds incredible, insane perhaps, even to me and yet I did it. Some places were in the pursuit of research on the book that just keeps getting postponed; some were as part of the pen world I now inhabit; and some were just spontaneous weekend hops because they were there and I was bored. My top recommendations are: Leiden and Utrecht in the Netherlands; Vicenza and Torino in Italy; Wroclaw and Bydgoszcz in Poland; Vilinus in Lithuania, Ljubljana in Slovenia, and Hamburg and Berlin in Germany (of course).

In conclusion, I raise my glass to your dream coming true – or as much of it as humanly possible. Courage, dear reader, and know that I offer my support under your wings.

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A wedding in Hamburg

I’ve just returned from a lovely family weekend in the outskirts of Hamburg, and since it was both charming AND a bit of a departure from any other wedding I’ve ever been to, I decided to share it with you.

The bride is T’s wonderful niece J, one of the three people who was actually in attendance at our wedding, the photographer of some of the pictures in my blog of that day. She was marrying her prince T and it was an honor to be a part of it all. The event also served as one of my “pop German quizzes,” in which I attempt valiantly to appear much more fluent in German than I actually am with a group of complete strangers to which I am currently legally related, an activity which normally results in my falling into a near-coma-type sleep at the end of the day.

But let me share parts of the fun and festivities which need no translation. The actual ceremony itself, a non-religious one, took place yesterday morning in a registry office. But not just any registry office. We all headed out far west of Hamburg into the countryside to the tiny village of Jork. Now a charming and bucolic retreat known for its cherry and apple orchards (but long a political victim of its strategic location), Jork lay under the crowns of the Holy Roman Empire, the Swedes, the French, and finally the Germans, respectively for the last thousand years or so. Here’s a shot of the registry office (as well as the happy couple), and you’ll get a small sense of the place and why it was chosen. The architecture is courtesy of the Dutch, I’m told.

Fridays are a busy days in the registry office; there were three different groups milling anxiously around that morning and we almost joined the wrong bunch. Fortunately we found our tribe and quickly filed upstairs where we were privileged to witness a very short, totally secular, but completely heartfelt ceremony of bonding, somewhat similar to ours in Denmark two years ago. (The two elegantly coifed heads in the foreground are the groom‘s parents.)

After the ceremony, we tumbled back down the twisty stairs and out the doors for a bit of refreshment:

But the day was a bit brisk for outside socializing, so we soon all trooped to the hotel where the rest of the day’s activities would be. The Privathotel Lindtner is owned by the same folks that bring you the Lindtner chocolates and candies, as one is emphatically reminded at check-in:

Since no wedding is complete with photographs, we started our afternoon by assembling on the front steps of the hotel for the obligatory group shot. But this one came with a twist. In order to make sure everyone’s smile was included in the shot, the photographer employed a special assistant….which means I was photographed by a drone for the first time (that I’m aware of). Cool idea, but also a little creepy:

Thankfully the formalities were concluded quickly and we could get to the main event, which consisted of substantial quantities of  excellent food and bev. Here are the lovebirds before the first meal was served:

…and another shot of them admiring the most amazing present of all, from J’s parents, a hand-carved representation of the island of Sylt, one of J’s happy places, together with all manner of adorable and thoughtful related giftlets attached to it:

Besides astonishingly creative presents from friends and family members, a scrapbook that was created by the guests in real time with photos taken outside, and a tile-painting table (!!), the wedding entertainment included an original song written and sung with great earnestness and amusement to the happy couple:

To my enormous relief, there was no garter-tossing or bouquet-scrambling – I guess those are American innovations. The traditions at this wedding seemed much more genuine and less….reductive. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of giggling and sniggering going around in response to some of the lyrics of the song…that my evolving German didn’t quite catch.

Thankfully, we finally made it to dinner. And what a meal it was.

In other words, cheese tart with salad, wedding soup (a beef broth with squares of egg white), braised oxen with truffled potato mousse, shallots in a port wine reduction and veggies, and then one of the most kickass dessert plates I’ve ever had in my life:

As I was chowing through this most delectable array, it crossed my mind that this meal would probably never be served at an American wedding, where the choice would probably be chicken or fish and would include no dairy or gluten. That would have eliminated most of this astonishingly delicious meal…and in that moment I was more than happy to ignore dietary correctness in favor of sheer gluttony at the highest level.

Best wishes, J&T! It was a grand treat to share your special day. Enjoy Majorca and see you at Christmas…

Posted in Germany, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Naked with strangers

Spoiler alert…this is not a post that will be rife with nude pictures. If that’s your interest, move along now, no reason to tarry.

To say I grew up in a prim and proper family with few PDAs (public displays of emotion) would be an understatement. The most erotic memory I have is that on the rare occasion that brother N and I shared a bed as youngsters (usually visiting relatives), we used to write large letters on each other’s back, spelling out a word the other would have to guess. PDAs were in such short supply, as I recall, that N and I made a conscious effort to give hugs to our younger step-siblings, since we saw that oversight on the part of our parents as a concerning thing. Not surprisingly, I was a bit late to the carnal delights that seemed to have defined my generation. One paramour in my later decades suggested that since I missed out on rampant widespread experimentation during my 20s, that area of my life was most probably a Lost Cause. Youth is wasted on the young, and all that.

So it might come as some small surprise to you, gentle reader, that in these later decades I have been indulging in one of the most un-American of physical pastimes, that of bathing naked with strangers. My first foray into this Brave New World was when I visited Budapest for the first time in 1992, barely three years into the non-Communist regime. At that point, I with several other women from my Untours group visited the Gellert Baths, an astonishing Art Noveau complex of pools and thermal waters that adjoins the Hotel Gellert on the Buda side of the Danube:

Men and women had separate entrances and facilities, carefully monitored by stern 4′ x 4′ Hungarian matrons who accepted forints, handed out threadbare towels, and shouted unintelligible instructions to us frightened tourist patrons. Once reaching the pools, however, I remember floating about in warm slightly sulfurous waters, gazing at the gorgeous architecture and tiling, feeling like a veritable goddess (I was 38) in comparison to most of the elderly patrons who clearly had had a very tough time under the former regime. (Body image +10 for that day, at least, and grateful for all the calcium and protein in my diet.)

It was over 20 years, however, before I repeated anything like that experience, my prim reticence taking hold as soon as I returned to the U.S. In 2015, however, I began teaching at the International University of Japan, a wonderful experience I have written about elsewhere. At the end of each term, the female faculty gathers for what is called a “Bare Naked Ladies Party,” an evening where folks sneak away from campus and enjoy a few guilty hours together in the warm sulfurous waters of a local onsen, bobbing and steaming and gossiping about fellow faculty and our irascible students:

Onsens have a long and storied history in Japan. Wiki tells us that “an onsen  (温泉) is a Japanese hot spring; the term also extends to cover the bathing facilities and traditional inns frequently situated around a hot spring. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands.” IUJ is situated in a valley between ranges of the “Japanese Alps,” so it is chock-a-block full of great little inns and establishments that will, for a modest price, give you access to washing facilities, a selection of indoor and outdoor pools, and usually a nice little lounge to recover in, to say nothing of the ubiquitous vending machines with juices of all varieties. My particular favorite is “SWEAT.”) Of particular note for this region is that apparently the local snow monkeys (Japanese macques) are known to head down from the mountains in the dead of winter to frequent the onsens, much to the consternation of the usual patrons…common wisdom being that if you encounter one of those creatures, it is generally best to back slowly away, making no eye contact whatsoever. (This I have yet to see and almost sells me on the idea of a winter trip):

So so far, if you’re keeping track, we have one day in Budapest in 1992 and a couple of female faculty frolics in the 20-teens. What’s the big deal, you ask. Well, I have arrived in Germany and discovered, apparently, the Mother Lode of therapeutic nudity.

Berlin (and perhaps other cities in Germany, definitely true in Iceland and perhaps other Northern European countries) have loads of public and private swimming and bathing establishments, dating, no doubt, from the days with much of the housing stock didn’t have such accommodations. Since apartments have modernized, now a number of these places have updated and are definitely more luxurious, featuring a variety of pools, humid and dry saunas, hot tubs, relaxation rooms, restaurants, on-site massages and other sybarite pleasures. My first experience was a couple years ago when Kurt’s friend G invited me along to her favorite sauna spot in Spandau, and I spent four hours enjoying the heat *but trying like hell to get over the shock of walking around in my all-under with men and women together.* Yes, you read that right. These facilities are mixed gender and “textile free.” Yee haw.

In fact, I just spent this afternoon at one of Berlin’s newer additions to this genre, the Vabali Spa, one of a chain of such Bali-styled venues in Germany. Basically a 20,000 square meter “sauna village” about 15 minutes by foot from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Vabali is a garden of earthly delights for the uninhibited, among which I guess I must now count myself. One can go for two hours, four hours, or all day to enjoy the variety of pools and saunas, OR one can add a massage to the package, which is what I did today. I justified today’s significant outlay to my “mental health and sanity” budget since I barely slept last night in light of the latest mental abuses of the U.S. political scene, but I can’t make a habit of this or I’ll be living out of a grocery cart under a u-Bahn station:

The point I want to make about all of this, though, is that…..being naked with strangers (even boys and girls together) is strangely liberating and not as incredible awkward and weird as I initially thought it would be. I’m helped by the fact that most of the time in these venues *my glasses are off,* which means everyone is basically is a pinkish or brownish blob, and I pretend they see me the very same way (which, judging by the numbers of glasses around the place, they probably do). One cultivates one’s best “mid-distance” unfocused stare and just makes sure one doesn’t slip on the tiles or misplace one’s locker bracelet. But as I sat in one of the dry saunas this afternoon, feeling some my of muscles unclench again after a pummeling by a very adroit Thai masseur (yes, masseur, I even did that today), it occurred to me that this is yet another one of the things a lot of us are really inhibited by and quite frankly it’s a shame. Sometimes the less you have, the freer you are, and I’m beginning to understand that quite literally.

 

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