A peek at Potsdam

We’ve had what the Germans call a “Golden October” this year, continuing to linger on still in to the first cool days of November. My environmental dashboard notes that this is perhaps more than we Northern Europeans actually deserve; that we should be well and truly grey and damp and dismal by this point in the calendar, but my romantic soul loves that we can still walk through streets lined with yellow-leafed trees and enjoy dry sunny days sitting at cafes with our faces turned to the sun like lizards on rocks.

Last weekend I made my way down to Potsdam to visit a newly renovated museum/cafe called “Das Minsk.” Potsdam, the capital of the state of Brandenburg and a fascinating historic city in its own right, was until 1989 part of old East Germany, in fact it was the KGB-infested nest of espionage and listening devices made famous in the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies”since it was literally just across the Havel River from the Allied-controlled West Berlin. Das Minsk was an East German restaurant during the DDR heyday but after the fall of the wall and German reunification, it fell out of favor into crumbling disrepair. Interestingly, Hasso Platner, the German partner of the SAP software firm, bought the site from the city of Potsdam and has turned it into an art center and a reincarnation of the formerly beloved eatery. It had a grand opening in September and was highly touted but I’ve been distracted of late; with this lovely fall weekend I finally had the time and inclination to go.

Buuuutttt….I was completely underwhelmed. Ten Euro! Only two small exhibits! The place packed with visitors and screaming children! In under 15 minutes I had retrieved my belongings from my rented locker and had run screaming for the exit myself. But I’ll share one lovely picture by Wolfgang Mattheuer called “Wintersonne “Winter Sun,” painted in 1994, almost but not quite worth the visit:

Okay, I sez to myself, NOW what? Too soon to turn tail and head home. Of course the obvious answer is “ramble on, girl, ramble on.”

First, a lovely signpost, a reminder that Potsdam, like Berlin, is truly in the middle of everywhere. I was particularly charmed by the useful information about the Südtirol, an astonishing magical place if ever there were one, and well worth the 1700 km trip, although perhaps not by bike. The Baltic Sea (Ostsee) island destination of Rügen is perhaps more attainable at 600 km.

Since I had no time limits and no plans, I decided to see where my feet took me. While Potsdam is chock-a-block full of justly famous historic places and possibilities (Frederick the Great! More palaces than any other city in Germany! Close to the German film mecca of Babelsburg!) this post will be about the odds bodkins that I found in a completely random fashion that afternoon. And isn’t that the most interesting way to learn about a place anyway?

On my way to the more historic parts of the city, I came across this piece of guidance of use for a local park. Verboten, verboten, verboten! (Just exactly IS one allowed to do here?) And if anyone knows what the cryptic symbol is in the lower right-hand corner, I’d be grateful to be enlightened. (Update: the hive mind suggests this is a banana peel thus enjoining us not to litter. I’ll buy it.)

Chastened and humbled, I then moved in the direction of the historic center, now home to the recreated Museum Barberini and the recreated St. Nikolaikirche Potsdam. Shortly thereafter I found myself in the city square known as the Bassinplatz, something that looked like a perfectly normal city park, until I looked a little closer and saw…these…

…graves, which on closer inspection….were clearly inscribed in Cyrillic. I had unknowingly stumbled onto the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, the Soviet Memorial to “680 ‘Red Army’ soldiers and officers buried in 291 individual and 18 mass graves. They fell in the last days of the War in the struggle for Potsdam.” What we in the US appear to be very ignorant of is the incredible role (and incredible human toll) the Soviet Army played (and paid) in the liberation of Berlin. The US troops stayed quite a distance outside the city while estimates of around 80,000 Soviet soldiers died and an additional nearly 300,000 soldiers were wounded to defeat Hitler in the final days of World War II, around late Spring and early May 1945. The mind can hardly take it in.

I was particularly struck this one grave:

My Russian is rusty, but what I make out is “Martinenko, Maria Timofeevna, 1920-1946. If anyone has anything to add, I’d be grateful. (Update: friends suggest several lines read “Sleep well dear, your faithful Vasily.”) But of course like so much in Germany, the place asks more questions than it answers.Who was she and why was she here?

Close by was another memorial, this one to the demonstrators who helped bring about the end of the East German regime. Nearly 100,000 people joined this peaceful demonstration in Potsdam on November 4, 1989, just five days before the fall of the wall.

Musing on all these brave souls, I kept moving onward closer to the center of town. I soon entered the delightful Dutch quarter of Potsdam. According to local authorities,

“The Dutch Quarter, also known as ‘Little Amsterdam’, includes four squares and a total of 134 two-storey houses. The unique district is home to the largest closed Dutch-style buildings outside the Netherlands. The facades of terraced houses consist entirely of red Dutch brick with white joints…

Frederick William I, the ‘Soldier King’, originally commissioned the construction of the Dutch Quarter to attract skilled workers from the Netherlands. A large number of well-trained craftsmen were needed to help with the expansion of Potsdam, which at the time was largely a garrison town. The shortage of workers meant many craftsmen were recruited from outside Prussia, including the Netherlands. To attract potential immigrants, workers were offered a home and attractive work contracts. The result was the creation of the new Quarter, which was built by Dutch architect Jan Bouman between 1732 and 1742. The area also attracted military families, as well as French and German artists and artisans.”

But on this sunny afternoon, I just mostly enjoyed seeing the lizards:

Nearby, another Russian echo, interesting enough. I wouldn’t want to be trying to write their business plan for 2023, but it appears their hearts are in the right place, or at least I’d like to think so. The translation reads: “Dear Friends, we cook, bake, roast ourselves and every day (the peace sign).”

This is just one of the multitude of interesting and inviting cafes, shops, and restaurants to explore throughout the historic town center, which goes one for blocks and blocks, a veritable feast for eyes, feet,(and probably pocketbook). Every time I come to Potsdam, I say to myself “Why aren’t you here more often?” It’s only 30 km away, maybe 45 minutes by public transportation, but truly another world.

Perhaps it’s because I just can’t behave myself very well in Germany sometimes. My dear spouse knows signs like this one below, advertising a fish restaurant specializing in flounder, typically send me into paroxysms of giggles. (Lord knows when I’ll ever grow up.)

Even after nearly fifty years of East German rule and neglect, the city continues to shake off its socialist dust and rise again into astonishingly beautiful civic elegance. Here’s an entryway to one of the local postal complexes:

And as a parting shot, an advertisement for a local cabaret theater. This is a complicated picture that needs some explanation. First, the photo is of Karl Lauterbach, the Federal Minister of Germany for Health. It’s been his doleful task to oversee, with others, the whole COVID situation for the last nearly three years. The sign reads “Killer Variant,” and clearly this latest show is a some kind of political play on the pandemic and its impact on all of our lives. Herr Lauterbach is known for his limited fashion sense, hence the somewhat greasy coiffure. And the point of all this is…Karl was actually one of the students in the programs I was running during my time at the Harvard School of Public Health in the early 1990s. I never thought that quiet nerdy guy, always turning in things late and missing meetings and sporting food stains on his sweater…would end up at the top of the health food chain in his native land. Ya just never know:

Trust me, I’ll hurry back here again soon. So much to learn and explore. Stay safe and healthy.

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Berlin, Beethoven, and Band Camp

Due to a complete lack of college counseling and a great love of marching band, I started my undergraduate career in 1972 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, thrilled in addition to have been admitted to the Trojan Marching Band, which was then enrolling only the second class that included women (!). Before the actual academic term began, I found myself high in the San Bernardino mountains at USC’s Idyllwild campus for the required week-long band “boot camp”, sweating and straining from dawn to dusk to memorize endless fight songs and extensive half-time routines and and as well to conquer the various physical challenges of USC’s wild and crazy performance style, something, well, sort of like this:

Hasn’t changed a whole lot, so you get the idea

I quickly met and was drawn to another overwhelmed frosh named P, a tall lanky clarinet player from Huntington Beach. We bonded over a shared repugnance of the uncomfortably blatant macho culture of the band, but more importantly, over classical music, science fiction, and an unseemly enjoyment of word play. We quickly found other outliers at USC, folks who didn’t fit the blond/bronze/beautiful mold, and together enjoyed some typical freshman shenanigans before most of us transferred away to more appropriate institutions. (Okay, to be truthful, D on the far left below never enjoyed much of anything. Not sure why we kept him around.) Here you see us enjoying a midnight run to the Griffith Park Observatory, either before or after a visit to Tower Records on Hollywood Boulevard where we frequently salivated over the various delicious audio options, many showcasing the legendary Berlin Philharmonic, then conducted by the equally legendary Herbert von Karajan.

Oh, the hair. Such magnificence. Sic transit gloria mundi.

A bit later in the fall, P and I attended a concert performed by the USC Student Symphony Orchestra, then under the baton of Daniel Lewis, a recently arrived professor who went on to make that orchestra and other ensembles in the department among some of the finest in the country. I had heard symphonies before, but *never in person,* you understand, only on records at home. I didn’t realize, for example that all the violins would bow together all in the same direction at once.

The orchestra played, as the final number, the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig von Beethoven. I was utterly strickened. I had never heard anything so powerful, so moving, in my entire life. P was equally affected. (Remember, now, we’re all of eighteen years (seventeen in P’s case), fresh off the boat of Hermann Hesse, Desiderata, American Pie, and The First Time Every I Saw Your Face. It was a powerful, primal moment.)

Life went forward, the decades rolled on, empires rose and fell. P and I pursued different paths, he to journalism and ultimately international web work in media and science fiction, I to the diplomatic world and then to various incarnations in academe. We stayed in touch intermittently through our various moves and spouses, albeit with goodly long stretches in-between. P had studied German in college (I had somehow chosen Russian), and when he and his lovely wife M came to Berlin in 2017, we rebonded over our love of this city and its bottomless opportunities. P and M came through again in 2019 and then just recently concluded yet a third visit, gently aware, but not dwelling, on the miracle and mysteries of a 50-year friendship.

But P and M had planned a very special surprise for me. Some months ago he had written and asked if T and I would be available to attend a concert with them at the Berlin Philharmonic of Beethoven’s Seventh on 30 September. (Is this a serious question? Does a bear shit in the woods?) But now comes a little hiccup. Due to circumstances completely out of their control, P and M were not able to attend the concert themselves and handed the pile of four tickets to me just the day before. After my initial shock and dismay, I quickly found two willing enthusiasts to join us.


You know me by now, I love to do the deep dive, and here’s the scoop. Beethoven’s Seventh was written somewhere between 1811 and 1812, while “improving his health in the northern Bohemian spa town of Teplitz,” just over the border from Germany, according to Wiki, a popular venue at the time for the wealthy bourgeois which included obviously the Maestro himself, but also the poet Goethe and various European monarches. The work is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, an extraordinarily wealthy Austrian patron who apparently, among his other favors, had recently bailed Beethoven out of a large debt to a certain London publishing company.

In the event that you haven’t heard the Seventh, what makes it magical to me is a combination of elements. First, it was written in the shadow of the Napoleonic threat to Europe, and there is always, to my ear, a dark undertone in every movement, reminiscent for me of these days in which we find ourselves now. Second, on top of those dark sustained chords and minor keys he places motifs and rhythms of great playfulness, wild joy, and almost exhausting enthusiasm, probably the “happiest” Beethoven you’ll ever hear (except for the second movement, that’s kind of a downer). But always with the backdrop of the wolves outside the doors. Kind of his “Carpe Diem,” one might say.

Waiting for the magic to begin.

And then the conductor. Oh.my.god. When I discovered we’d be hearing the Seventh conducted by the legendary Herbert Blomstedt, I just about lost it. Not well known on the US side of the pond, Maestro Blomstedt has been conducting around Europe and the world *since before I was born.* At 95, this vibrant spirit takes command of the stage and of the musicians like Mario Andretti or Lewis Hamilton. Total passion, total control. Makes one wonder if there must something to say about the Seventh Day Adventist lifestyle – it sure as heck seems to be working for him.

So what a great circle of life and music. Grateful to P for 50 years of keeping it real; grateful to P and M for this gift, grateful for this life in Berlin, and grateful to T and B and B that they were able to join me. And if you don’t have anything better to do for the next 42 minutes, how about this?

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A little look at Leipzig

So the muse clearly has been…hiding out for the last while. That being said, it certainly hasn’t been much of a time to travel for most of the world, no exception here. My summer teaching was finally over a week or so ago and I decided it was time to hit the road again, to try to get my travel “mojo” back after nearly two and a half years of masks and lockdowns, yada yada.

It made sense to head down to Leipzig for a couple days. It’s close, only about 160 kms away from Berlin, easy to reach by train or bus, and a rich historic location in its own right. It started as a trading city during Roman times and of course is well-known in musical and cultural circles as having hosted J.S. Bach, among others. It’s now considered by some to be “the most livable city in Germany” and is a economic and intellectual powerhouse, “the new Berlin,” if the hype is to be believed.

But…I couldn’t find its soul. I couldn’t feel the energy of the place. It didn’t help, of course, that it was hot as blazes the days I was there and any sane people had probably decamped to cooler greener spots, but all the same, I’ve found soul in hot cities before. My experience can best be summarized by saying Leipzig felt to me like a celebrity cosmetic procedure gone a bit wrong. Think Darryl Hannah with really big lips, Jennifer Grey with a bad nose job. The center of Leipzig is, basically, just a lot of big new shopping malls, chock-a-block full of the usual global franchises interspersed with generic restaurants sporting nearly identical umbrellas and panting tourists enjoying nearly identical Aperol Spritzes. It was disheartening, frankly.

That being said, I’ll do my very best to give you the soulful bits I could unearth in my quick gallop through the place. First, an entryway shot of my crib, the lovely Hotel Fregehaus, originally built in the Renaissance and “updated” about 1706:

The hotel is near the center of the city and only a few steps away I spotted this lovely roof detail:

Since I didn’t want to eat in a tourist trap, I asked my hotel about how to escape the rabble and hang out with the locals. I was directed to a lovely restaurant, Pilot, a short walk outside the city center. There I enjoyed a classic Sachsen meal of roast pork and potatoes:

Nearby, I spotted Leipzig’s spare but moving memorial to its Jewish population whose fate was similar to many others during that time. This presentation is on the site of the former synagogue destroyed in 1938. The chairs form a mute testament to the community that was lost.

A short walk away (it’s a very small inner city, everything is basically a short walk away) is the Thomaskirsche, where J.S. Bach worked from 1723 to 1750. Originating as a monastery in the 12th century, it also hosted during its lifetime Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. The statue is, of course, J.S., and he is buried inside:

…charmingly, the back of the statue is as detailed as the front, but just the pipes, ma’am, just the pipes:

…and then inside, the organ itself, most probably not the original, but in the original spot:

In a very different vein, not far away but still a musical pilgrimage site, here is the home of the Leipziger Kammerorchester, clearly a bit of an architectural change of pace:

The musical theme is woven pretty tightly throughout the city. I found this little gem nearby:

As I headed back to my bus to head homeward, I saw this interesting juxtaposition of the “new” town hall with a “mini-me,” joined together at a busy intersection:

Nearby, a cheery mural advocating for all the lovely progressive virtues we wish our societies would adopt:

A shocking storefront, even when I was girded for the worst:

And finally a cool spot to wait for the bus…aesthetically lovely benches that were hell to sit on for an hour and clearly discouraged any napping, but at least a respite from the sun and heat:

I don’t want to end on a complete downer so I’ll quickly add that I plan to go back during a cooler month and avail myself of some of the outstanding museums that I know await me there. But those of you who have traveled with me here know my sense of frustration and sadness at the “urban taxidermy” that afflicts a lot of the beautiful old haunts in this part of the world. So welcome back to my excursions, and hopefully you won’t have to wait so long for the next installment.

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Roots and Wings: Janet and Jim

This won’t be a travel piece. This will be a homage to two very special people in my life who left the planet in the fall of 2021. If you want to go on a short geographic excursion today, just skip right by this post. But if you’d like to take a deep dive into how I became who I am, if you want to learn how I have been emotionally and spiritually fueled through the decades, come with me as I take a moment to express, at least to myself and perhaps to you, what these two people meant and continue to mean to me.

About Janet (aka J) I have spoken here and there throughout this blog. My BFF; companion for wonderful times in Maine; keeper of all the deep dark secrets. But there aren’t super exciting adventures and Inst-worthy photos or TikTok-worthy videos to share in a medium like this. You have to picture two women of a certain age, still in their pajamas and robes and bedheads at 11:30 in the morning, still sipping lukewarm coffee and still just nattering the hours away like jaybirds in springtime. We never finished any conversation ever; rather topics were abandoned like fast food wrappers along the interstate when we either ran out of time or were distracted by another shiny object. The conversation was indeed the purest gold, and it never faltered. In that way, Janet was my rock and my salvation; she gave me the kind of unconditional support, interest, and encouragement one often gets from one’s parents.

About Jim I have spoken not at all in this context. Partly that is because the vast bulk of our relationship predated this blog and partly out of respect for his family (for whom I was a slightly controversial figure). But when I read yesterday that the dementia that had haunted him for decade had finally conquered him forever, I felt a need to express and describe how my life has been immeasurably enriched by his presence.

It all started here on a humid June day in the mid ’80s when I was sworn into the U.S Department of State Foreign Service. I’m on the left-hand side of the photo in a light linen suit with two mustachioed men behind me; Jim, the director of the A-100 orientation program, is on the far right.

A-100 is a “drinking from a fire-hose” introduction to the diplomatic profession. In the space of six weeks, we listened to innumerable lectures, visited innumerable government offices, were introduced to and practiced a variety of trade-craft skills (no poison pens and shoe-phones, sadly), read piles of background papers and made a variety of video-taped presentations. At the end of the class, in a rather tense and dramatic “commencement” celebration, we were named to our initial assignments and then either parceled off to months more training or immediately clapped on a plane and sent overseas.

Jim encouraged collegial socializing and was often a lively participant in Friday TGIFs. Just about the time I finished my months of training and departed for Copenhagen, Denmark, Jim and his family headed off to his next posting in Aukland, New Zealand where he had the unenviable task of trying to negotiate between a particularly bone-headed US government policy (that wanted American nuclear submarines in New Zealand harbors) and the Kiwi government (who definitely did not). I didn’t envy him that particular assignment. It was a no-win situation and after three years he ended up resigning from the Service, not long after I resigned as well, finding myself not well suited to some of the more vexing bureaucratic challenges and “big personalities” in my job.

And this is where the magic truly began. Because of his experience in training American diplomats, Jim was asked very early in his retirement life to take on the task of training other diplomats around the world. In the beginning, these trainings were in the islands of Micronesia, but they later extended to many of the newly created and emerging nations of the early 1990s. Jim ended up working and teaching as a State Department contractor in Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and perhaps some other places as well.

And he asked me to be a part of these adventures. And of course, I said “YES!” just as often as I could.

Part of the reason for his invitations was that it’s pretty hard to teach a two-week all-day training program alone. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Part of the reason was that it’s lonely to teach a two-week all-day training program by yourself (there’s only so much socializing you want to do with the participants at the end of a long day). And of course, part of the reason was that he fancied me a bit, and while we drew a very sharp line in the sand, occasionally we danced nearby.

Because of Jim, I visited Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Guam, and Fiji, some of these places multiple times. Here we are with another training colleague Nancy in one of those far-flung island outposts – but to be perfectly honest I don’t remember which one:

It’s no easy feat to travel around in the Western Pacific. Just getting there from the US is a huge challenge. It’s five hours to Honolulu from the West Coast (longer from the East Coast) and then another nine hours to Guam. From Guam you get off the big birds and get on the little island hoppers that put-put their way from island to island to island, occasionally spending an extra 24 or 36 hours in a locale when a typhoon blows through. Thank goodness for great chilled Australian beer and the best and cheapest sushi I’ve ever had, although the natives actually preferred imported Spam.

Because of Jim I visited Bratislavia, Slovakia, making a weekend side trip to Nitra, Banska Bystrica, and Kosice. We laughed ourselves silly in a local restaurant where the menus were only in Slovakian and our translations of entrees made no sense (“Grilled Locksmith” and “Chimney Sweeper’s Balls” being two unforgettable options). We ended up pointing at something yummy-looking being carried by our table and were served shortly with Wild Boar Goulash, more than acceptable under the circumstances.

Here we are with members of the Slovakian Ministry of Foreign Affairs training class:

The redhead to Jim’s left had a rather casual view of professional attire, it seemed to me. “I didn’t need to know she was wearing a pink bra,” I said to Jim later that evening. “I didn’t need to know she didn’t match,” he replied.

Jim wasn’t fond of being photographed (neither am I). but I did manage to wheedle him into posing for me during one of our strolls around Brat. While later in life he devolved to a wardrobe that consisted mainly of Fisherman Casual with Baseball Cap, this picture epitomizes for me the sharp, suave, charming, intelligent, diplomat from Central Casting which Jim always played to a tee. (On the other hand, Bratislava was just starting its urban renovation efforts; I’m sincerely hoping the building behind him…looks a bit better today than it did then.)

Because of Jim, I saw Sarajevo in Bosnia, Dubrovnik and Cavtat in Croatia, Podgorica and Kotor in Montenegro, Skopje and Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, Sofia and Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Thessaloniki in Greece. Not in one trip, of course, but over multiple trips over many years. It felt at the time – and continues feels even more in retrospect – extraordinary. I have no words for my gratitude and appreciation.

One weekend in Brat we made a trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia. It’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever been:

The hotel we stayed at was, as so many Slovenian things are, a quirky blend of Austrian comfort, Italian charm, and Slavic eccentricity. There was an accordion player there who specialized in the Anton Karas music from the movie “The Third Man,” the Orson Wells classic from 1949 shot primarily in Vienna. That, plus an outstanding slivovitz, blazed a golden memory into my mind.

But if I were to tie Janet and Jim together, my personal roots and wings, it would be for the quality of the conversations we shared. Very different, of course, but both to a level that itched my mind and soul in the places that needed scratching. And with Jim, obvious enough from the pictures already shared, there was usually some adult libation involved. (The motto of the State Department is, after all, “I have only one liver to give for my country.”) So with a final salute, I give you a picture of Jim in paradise. We’re lunching in the restaurant patio of a great eco hotel called “The Village” in Pohnpei, FSM (since closed; a real shame) and we’re discussing Life and the Universe in grand style. Vale, Jim, safe travels, and save me a seat at the bar.

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A Quick Look at Lutherstadt Wittenberg

If you know me personally, you know that I have recently suffered the loss of my dear friend J. You may have seen references to her throughout this blog, and if you have the inclination to go back to 2013-2015, you’ll see various posts dedicated to our all-too-brief time together in Maine. Such a life event demands reflection, and as I come out of my fog, I realize that I want to continue to embrace my glorious life in Germany, with all the challenges these days seem to bring. But I will still miss her like hell.

The challenge of “no travel” has been a big one for the last couple years, and understanding that, some of the local transport companies have offered annual pass holders *free travel* on regional trains running nearly all over the country for a period of two weeks this month. Up-side: free! Down-side: these trains stop at every damn barn and outhouse and it takes sometimes double or triple the time to get anywhere from anywhere. But since I can’t see the words “free” and “travel” without a huge dopamine hit, it was time to hit the rails.

First stop: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, a place that I’ve been meaning to visit for a while. I studied religion as an undergraduate, even did a graduate degree in Applied Theology and as a result was quite familiar with the name Martin Luther and his outlaw deeds (in the mind of the Catholic Church at least). But I had never seen him quite like this. Nice to see the locals have a sense of perspective on their main man:

Originally settled by Flemish colonists in 1180, Wittenberg (the Lutherstadt is basically an honorific) became an important regional center in the fifteenth century, seeing the foundation of the University of Wittenberg in 1502 and hence Luther’s arrival there as a professor of theology in 1508. On the 31st of October, 1517, as legend has it, Luther nailed his 95 theses (his complaints against the Catholic Church) to the wooden door of All Saints, the castle church, and so marked the official beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Because of its significant religious history, the town center was spared from Allied bombing during World War II. The consideration only went so far, however… just outside the city limits there was an aircraft parts factory which was bombed to holy hell, as it were, taking with it over the one thousand prisoners and POWS who manned it. Wittenberg fell to the Soviets after the war and then became part of East Germany until the reunification in 1990. Here’s a map of the main historical section of town:

Because tourism is such a key part of the town’s economic foundation, the local inhabitants have gone out of their way to make sure people can find their way around and can appreciate the various offerings. Here two bikers read one of the many civic markers (the ones in orange above) that help us hapless visitors navigate this vast expanse:

If you’re been following my blog for any time at all, you know I am not particularly happy about the “Disneyization” of many Europe’s historic inner cities. Unfortunately, Lutherstadt Wittenberg has fallen prey to this condition as well. I don’t envy the civic mothers and fathers who had to decide how to move forward at various difficult economic moments and decided to take piles of money to turn their towns into World Heritage sites, but I still rue that I will never see any of these places as they were most of their lives, vibrant lively urban centers. Here’s a very beautifully restored but somewhat antiseptic main street:

Just when I was getting really grumpy about this, I finally saw something seemed mostly authentic and unrestored. Here’s a boot selection from….a while back, goodness knows when…showing the various styles available by some local bookmaker at some not-so-recent point…mysterious, but at least, not made last week and flown here from China:

Okay, now, time to stop whining and get to the attractions. First up, of course, the main city square (#9 Platz in the map above), seen here through the fisheye of the 500-year Jubilee marker. You might make me out as well as the single human on the square at that moment:

Nearby a dignified statue of Martin himself, graced this day by a fresh new communicant:

But since you know me, you know that once I get the main idea of a place, I start looking for the chewy interesting bits that I didn’t know about before I arrived.

First up was that Lutherstadt Wittenberg was also significant in the lives of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and the Younger (1515-1586). These German Renaissance painters and portraitists worked for the Electors of Saxony and ended up immortalizing many of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. (Martin apparently was a good friend of the Elder Cranach.) They are considered among the most successful German artists of the period, although I must confess I hadn’t been aware of them before I moved to Europe.

The Cranach painting studio has been renovated and the rest of the Hof (Courtyard) that included his living space and barns is currently being upgraded as well. Here’s a “before” picture of the Hof, which shows that some places really do need an Extreme Makeover:

And after some tender loving care and mountains and mountains of Euros, voila:

Cranach himself was seated nearby but seemed to be lost in his work…

Just a few steps further along the main street, I came across Haus der Geschichte Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Now, you know I love museums, and the crazier the better. I’ve been to the Museum of Tobacco and Salt in Tokyo, the Museum of Dirt and Soap in Bydgoszcz, and a few other gems. But this one…was verrrrrry interesting. Here’s the floor plan. Look carefully:

Hint….here’s who greeted me on the stairs…a youngish, “handsome” Erich Honecker:

So, yes, although they didn’t say it in so many words, this is a museum dedicated to the “good old days” of the East German 20th century and showing a good bit of what we call “Ostalgia” (Nostalgia for the East (Ost)). Each room of the museum is inhabited by a different family of curious and creepy aging mannequins and shows a different decade of the 20th century, paying particular attention to the furniture and furnishings of the era, kind of a snapshot of each ten-year period. Most didn’t catch my eye particularly, but I was taken by the re-creation of a swingin’ groovy East German nightclub circa 1970 or so:

Probably a favorite of the AfD. Hmmmmm. Moving right along…

Speaking of political parties, the German elections are coming up soon, to be held this year on Sunday the 26 (those practical Germans) and as you probably know, Frau Merkel will be departing the stage after her 16 years at the helm. I’ve been curious to know what the future holds in store for her, so I was happy to see she already has some plans to stay active:

Ba-da Boom! It’s dirty exhausting work trying to learn and share all this history and culture. Fortunately, among its many attractions, Lutherstadt Wittenberg offers a variety of restaurant options for the weary and peckish visitor. Most seem to be either Italian or Indian, but it seemed that in this most historic of German historical towns I wanted to stay local as it were. I ended up having salmon (being Friday and all; not that local), but the beer was superlative and came from Leipzig, only 72 km away.

So, since the free travel lasts until election day, get ready for a few more of these quick hits from here and there. Until then, cheers, and thanks for coming along for the ride.

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A Brush with Brandenburg

Everyone knows the Brandenburg Gate, that iconic symbol of Berlin, known in German as Das Brandenburger Tor. You can see a detail of it on the front page of this blog. But it wasn’t until I started looking more deeply at the names of some of the subway stops on Berlin’s astonishing public transportation system that the nickel finally dropped. Hallesche Tor, Schlesisches Tor, Kottbusser Tor, Frankfurter Tor, and Oranienburger Tor. What was the deal with all these Tors that today are….just grubby uBahn stations smelling of doner kebaps?

Well, of course, the word “tor” (which means gate) implies a wall, standard in medieval cities, and then the name of the gate…indicates the city that could be reached if one were only to walk through the Tor and… just keep walking, often for quite a while. Hallesche for the city of Halle to the southwest, Schlesisches for region of Silesia to the east, Kottbusser for the city of Kottbus (now Cottbus) to the southeast, Frankfurter for Frankfurt Oder, directly east, Oranienburger for Oranienburg to the north….and therefore ergo ipso facto Brandenburger for…the city of Brandenburg to the west, now the name of a state (Land) and the new local airport as well.

Long warm days and lower virus rates have, of course, put me in the mood to ramble, so one bright Saturday recently I took my very first train ride in a year and a half and meandered down to Brandenburg an der Havel. Wikipedia satisfied my initial curiosity by confirming old (established in 950 or so), lots of crazy history, good architecture, and, at 70,000 souls or so, easy to manage in an afternoon.

The initial opinion wasn’t great – the main train station pulls in across from a health center and a rehab facility so ugly that only their mothers could love them. I tried not to turn right around and head straight back, but before long a helpful little set of signs appeared that seemed to indicate better sights ahead:

And indeed the yellow brick road brought me over the first little branch of Brandenburg’s complicated waterway system and into a part of town that looked more promising. Brandenburg is actually three rather distinct parts: Neustadt (the first bit I came to; “neu” meaning from 1186); the Altstadt, only a few years older, and the Dominsel (Cathedral Island). The division comes from the course of the Havel River and its smaller cousins that run through the city.

My first stop was the State Museum of Archeology, no shock to most of you, which is cunningly located in the medieval abbey of St. Pauli, brilliantly repurposed. As is my want, I dashed through thousands of years of human history, pausing only briefly at the fascinating exhibits about the arrival of the Slavs into this region between the Elbe and Oder Rivers around the seventh century (which had been vacated by the local Germanic tribes a bit earlier, no one knows why). I’ve mentioned this before, and now I am happy I can show you a map that clears up all the confusion, clarifying where all the churches and forts came to be:

Clear? Good. Moving along, here’s a shot of what was apparently the unique circular building style used for defense of the various tribes in the region. Photographic evidence suggests that here are still many of these lying spread across the local landscapes, buried under a bit of earth, that are still yet to be explored:

But the clock was ticking and I had to leave the momentos of the past for the pleasures of the moment. I found my way to the Hauptstrasse in hopes of finding signs of life, and was pleased to see a little local color and conviviality on a beautiful afternoon:

I was fascinated to see some civic classical adornment of what must have been the headquarters of the main utility provider in town for a while. The three figures are titled “Light,” “Power” (or energy) and “Heat.”

A little further down along the Strasse, I saw a type of shop I have never seen before – that of an accordion maker and repairer. Since I am currently espoused to a craftsman, I appreciated this sight perhaps more than I would have some years ago. You can’t see much except the little red guy in the center and the erstwhile photog, but believe me, accordion makers and repairmen aren’t just everywhere:

Makes, repairs, sells, and offers accessories

Much of the city seemed quite deserted to me. This is a pattern in many of the formerly East German cities within a two-hour radius of Berlin – after the unification, local industries were determined to be not up to snuff economically and environmentally and simply closed down. Thousands lost jobs and many relocated. These lovely little cities with long noble histories have been trying for decades to redefine themselves, some more successfully than others. But a street like this one below reminded me more of Hungary or Slovakia than a short ride outside of Berlin:

I crossed another bridge, this time the Havel itself, and found myself in the Altstadt.

Before we go any further, though, I have to fill you in on the bare facts. Brandenburg was founded in the 10th century when a local Slavic settlement was conquered. Control of the city went back and forth for a few centuries, often being held by a Scythian or a Pole until finally one of the Wends (another Slavic tribe) converted to Christianity and thus was granted the city. In the 14th century Brandenburg joined the Hanseatic League; during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the city lost so much power that Potsdam became the new capital of the region. In the 19th century a lot of industrial manufacturing entered the region due to its water accessibility; there was a most distressing concentration camp here during the Second World War where the Nazis experimented with various forms of evilness. (Look it up if you have to.) That’s in in a nutshell.

My first stop was the Altstädtsches Rathaus mit Roland, the Oldtown City Hall with Roland. Roland, a loyal vassel of Charlemagne, hadn’t always stood here, he had originally graced the city hall in the new town from about the year 1402 or so. But his former home became a military parade ground and Roland was in the way, as it were, so he was moved to his current location in 1716.

Old and new

Nearby, another rather curious figure:

This is one of the (locally) famous “Ausgewilderte Waldmöpse,” or “Wild Forest Pugs,” apparently a beloved motif. I’m told there are 20 or so of them about the town (think dwarves in Wroclaw and dragons in Krakow). I only glimpsed this one; perhaps they are a bit timid with strangers…

My next stop was the St. Gotthardtkirke, a beautiful Gothic pile which, along with St. Katharinen and the Cathedral, are the main churches in town. You’ve seen plenty of churches if you’ve been following along with me, so I’ll just add some more personal notes. When I entered the church, off to the left-hand side I saw a lovely little room for personal reflection. I was absolutely charmed and sat for a few moments before adding my own candle to the basin:

A welcoming sight indeed

I entered the sanctuary and had a bit of a tour around, but of course was eventually drawn to the tower. My dear T knows I have never met a tower I didn’t love, and this one was no different. The first sight was a bit daunting, but I didn’t let it stop me; these steps clearly having been improved over the centuries with some well-placed concrete and a most sturdy rope:

…and of course after some zillions of steps I was rewarded by a perfect June panorama:

And then as I hastened to see the Cathedral Island, I thought I was clever to catch this departing shot of St. Gotthardt….

…but of course was chagrined to see that others had had precisely the same idea. Here from 1921:

Sic transit gloria mundi

The cathedral was, no surprise, another big old lovely Gothic pile in an absolutely gorgeous setting which no picture could quite capture. You have to imagine a triangle with the front of the cathedral as one leg, a set of several buildings which are now a hotel and a fantastic restaurant (I had the zanderfilet with potatoes and cucumbers, thank you) as the second leg and a third set of buildings completing the triangle with a lush grassy patch in the middle. The cathedral chimed a small carillon of multiple bells while I was eating my lunch and I thought I might just be called to the angels at that moment.

But now it was time to head back to catch the train. Just a couple shots to share how important the Havel has and is to the life and livelihood of the city. As I made my way back through the Neustadt to the train station, I passed some fish smokers plying their trade (eat in or take away) along the waterfront:

And finally, I’ll share a shot of how many of us only dream of spending our weekends:

So Brandenburg…a city with a long and fascinating history, a bit of a fall from grace after 1990, and now clearly trying to rebrand itself as a destination with something to offer almost everyone. I’m adding this to my growing list of places to explore again; here’s hoping the good times keep rolling and we all get to have some adventures for a while.

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“Wending” our way through the borderlands…

The travel muse has been on holiday for much of the past year, sitting on some tropical veranda sipping some adult beverage and waiting for this challenging season of lockdowns and quarantines to pass. I’ve been applying myself to studying German via Zoom in my slow and erratic way, hoping this year to finally pass the dreaded B1 exam and end the slow drip of grammatic torture that is every permanent expat’s fate. But this past weekend, dear friends K and M, basically my entire social “posse,” invited me out for a spin, something the Germans call “ein Ausflug,” or an excursion, into the beautiful countryside along the Oder River, the border with Poland.

Our first stop was Frankfurt an der Oder (henceforth “F/O”), a source of some confusion for newcomers to Germany since of course it shares its name with the bigger version to the west, Frankfurt am Main. In both cases, the second part of the name identifies the river on which the city sits and the reasons for their existence and growth.

Lying roughly 80 km east of Berlin, F/O is one of those places whose past is considerably grander than its present. It began as a Slavic settlement and ended up passing under the control of a range of ruling entities including the Poles, the Bohemians, the Prussians, the Swedes, the Russians, the Poles (again), the East Germans, and of course then the reunified Germany. One of the civic gems is the Marienkirche, originally built in 1253.

We were bummed to realize that, of course, the church would be closed due to COVID, so we walked briefly around the town only to realize that F/O has suffered the fate of many other cities in the region – a handful of jaw-dropping ancient architectural wonders surrounded on most sides by ghastly functional modern blocks of concrete and steel. We took small comfort from this charming sculpture outside the doors of the public library but then quickly exited Stage Left…

Reading to a friend always improves the experience

You’ll notice the word “wending” above. On my trip to Görlitz a few years back, I discovered that much of the area south of the east-west line between Berlin and F/O and running clear south to the Czech border is an historic region previously known as either Lusatia or Sorbia, home to the Slavic Sorb and Wend peoples. The Wends may have been the inspiration for the name “Vandals, and these fiercely independent groups held out against the invading Christian Germans until around the 12th century or so. Although living throughout the ages under many flags as suggested above, the language and elements of the culture have remained and have protected status in Germany. So as soon as one crosses into these previously Sorbian or Wendish lands, one sees place names and other signs in both languages.

From F/O we headed southward, roughly following the twists and turns of the Oder River, a lovely ride that kept confusing the heck out of my Smartphone, which kept welcoming me to Poland and telling me about my roaming charges. Our next stop was the tiny town of Neuzelle, a new place to my mental map and one that you probably haven’t heard of either. Here’s my entry into the “Most Bucolic Photo of the Day:”

Just to the right of this shot is the local brewery (closed at the moment – damn!) and then up the hill behind me is the group of buildings and gardens that makes up an ancient cloister complex:

So I knew I was in for something special, but after we walked through the gates, I really did drop my jaw. I looked at K as if to ask if he took a wrong turn somewhere and landed us in Austria. But he just looked at me and smiled. “Welcome to the Abbey.”

The complex was established as Nova Cella in 1268 by a group from the nearby Cisterian Altzella Abbey. The complex grew in the 14th century, but was destroyed in the 15th century during the Hussite Wars. The Hapsburg Monarchy (ah HA! Hence this style of building) extended its reach in the 16th century through the Bohemian Crown lands and the complex remained Catholic even though the entire surrounding areas became Protestant after the Reformation. Heavily damaged during the Thirty Year’s War in the early 17th century, the church was rebuilt AGAIN in this astonishing Baroque style, unlike much of anything else in this neck of the woods. Today the monastery complex is held by a public foundation run by the State of Brandenburg and includes two churches, the living quarters for the monks in residence, a school, and a museum, along with a developing formal garden. The site has applied for World Heritage status.

We wandered inside just as the resident monks started their noon chant, which ran for fifteen minutes. This gave us time to take in the interior of the church:

Chanting like it’s 1685

You just don’t see anything like this anywhere in Northern Germany, and particularly in the areas that used to be under East German control, where many of the churches were literally stripped of every internal piece of frippery. To see this much ornamentation still intact was….head shaking.

M and K taking in the view

To the rear of the complex, the old formal gardens are being re-established after decades, if not centuries, of neglect. In a year or two, this view will be even more enjoyable.

On a clear day, you can see…..Poland

By this time I was ready to call it a day, but K had one more stop in mind. We drove south another 75 kilometers through the perfect spring afternoon and finally arrived in Bad Muskau, a little spa town on the banks of the Neisse River. But the real reason to go is to see the “Fürst-Pückler-Park,” a UNESCO-World Heritage site since 2004 and the brainchild of the prince and landscape artist Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, “The Green Prince,” a man with a vision and the means to realize it.

Pückler-Muskau was born in this building in 1785. He spent some time in the army and traveled extensively through France and Italy. He was briefly the governor of Bruge in Belgium after the defeat of Napoleon.

After retiring from military service, he traveled again, this time through Great Britain, spending time in London, Wales, and Ireland. Later in his life he traveled through Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan. He was “promoted” from count to “Fürst,” a higher level of nobility divorced his first wife, and looked for a second one who could support his growing interest in…..gardening. The palace here, seen below, was the result of his first effort; he sold this estate and developed a second one near Cottbus, another city in the region.

The Fürst died childless after a long and eventful life at the age of 85, after having been a travel writer, a military man, a landscape gardener, and apparently quite a ladies’ man and freethinker, creating a bit of a stir in his day. A lucky nephew inherited his estate which included the original house on the left and the palace:

Here’s another view from the backside…

Waiting for the cafe to open…whenever that will be….

…and a shot of one of the guarding spirits….

The surrounding gardens are massive and were divided at the end of the Second World War between Germany (520 acres) and Poland (860 acres). A decent exploration would take at least a whole weekend or more.

We tumbled back into the car and headed to Berlin, our heads filled with images of beauty and tales of artistry that spanned the centuries. I’m just hoping there are many more such adventures ahead as we all begin to venture back into the world. In the meantime, stay thee safe and well and you can be sure I’ll bring you along with me wherever I go.

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The power of a portrait’s gaze…and the power of an artist

If I were to try to explain my relationship with my father, I would have to fall back on that useful and time-honored Facebook status phrase, “It’s complicated.”

To his everlasting credit, however, at approximately the mid-1950s time period represented above, my father took it into his head to expose me to fine art. My parents had bought a series of small books on specific artists, a set like others of the 1950s and 1960s available monthly in grocery stores for a quarter or so. My father trained me, at approximately 18-24 months of age, to recognize the artist from the piece on the cover of the book. I would be trotted out at cocktail parties, family legend goes, to demonstrate my precocious virtuosity. “That’s Mr. Utrillo!” I would chirp, pointing at one book cover. “And that’s Mr. Rubens!”

Like most parlor tricks, this one had limited utility in the rest of my life, although it did give me some extra points in my college humanities classes. But the value and delight of this rather unorthodox early training has meant that I have been endlessly seduced by art and art museums of all shapes and sizes around the world. Sometimes I have enjoyed Renaissance paintings, sometimes 20th century suprematism, sometimes American impressionism, whatever. But lately, I’ve become enraptured by….portrait painting.

“Huh,” you say to yourself. “Portrait painting. Um, gosh, that sounds….ah……er…… fascinating.” I know, I know, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and I can understand your impulse just at this moment to click out of my blog and get on with something more….dynamic…if you will. But please give me a chance to plead my case on this one.

A couple years back, in the “before” times when we could travel to places and explore venues more interesting than the grocery store and the post office, T and I went to Madrid for the annual big pen show there. We left ourselves an extra day at the end of our stay for some final business and a bit of sight-seeing, since pen shows normally mean one is locked in a ballroom for ten to twelve hours a day. I had plans to drag T off to a couple of the smaller, less famous art museums since 1.) they were close to our hotel and 2.) I had hoped the crowds would be smaller, which they were. We were walking through the first one, the lovely Museo Lazaro Galdiano, when I stopped dead in my tracks in front of this work:

The title of this piece is “Retrato de dama joven,” “Portrait of a young lady,” 1560, by (officially attributed to) Sofonisba Anguissola, c. 1532-1625. Interesting details to unpack in a moment, but first, the look on the subject’s face:

Forgive me my projections, but that is…grief. Or at least, tremendous sadness, anguish, resignation, and still, underneath, duty, grit, resolution. Or at least, that’s what I see. I was instantly haunted by this picture, and went home to research it, of course.

No-one seems to know who this person is, except that she was a noblewoman in the court of Phillip II of Spain, the location where the artist was working (more about that in a moment). The descriptions I found only spoke to her “serene expression,” her dress and ornate embroidery, the detail in the ruff, the jewels in her hair. She’s holding gloves, perhaps an indication of outside wear. But, IMHO, this girl is hurting, and I wanted to know more.

1560 Spain.

Phillip (Felipe) II was the most powerful ruler Spain ever had, by some accounts, and his 42-year imperial rule, his Golden Age, spanned large swatches of Europe and the discovery of much of the Americas as well as the Philippines. When he actually inherited Spain in 1556, he and his wife became “Philip and Mary, by the grace of God, King and Queen of England, Spain, France, both the Sicilies, Jerusalem and Ireland, Defenders of the Faith, Archdukes of Austria, Dukes of Burgundy, Milan and Brabant, Counts of Habsburg, Flanders and Tyrol.” Not a bad bit of real estate. But what that meant of course, was wars, wars, wars, wars, and then of course, more wars, against just about everybody just about everywhere, including a brutal set of navy battles against the Ottomans in which thousands of Spanish sailors were lost. The Battle of Djerba (near Tunisia) in May of 1560 was one of these.

My based-on-absolutely-nothing intuitive sense is that the young lady’s true love was lost at sea or in battle or something along those lines…and that this painting, her engagement portrait as I am guessing it is, shows both her wounded heart and the knowledge that she must go forward with a different marital outcome, shall we say, than the one she had hoped for, dreamed of, just a short time ago.

But who was the artist who could capture this look, this feeling, this beauty and this pain that arrested me across 460 years? Ah, here the story gets…even better.

This one could, and she did:

Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1556 Although she painted women in glorious colors, the artist herself wore a modest and virtuous black.

Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Italy, then a Spanish dominion, to a noble family of modest means in 1632. She was the eldest of six sisters and one brother, all of whom were educated to a high standard by parents who believed in the values of “The Book of the Courtier” by Baldassare Castiglione.

By the artist. A family portrait group with her father, Amilcare, sister Minerva, and brother Asdrubale, circa 1559.

Her artistic talent, and those of her siblings, was nourished and supported by her family, extremely unusual in the day. This resulted in training with Michelangelo in Rome for two years and a resulting invitation to paint the Duke of Alba in Milan. He in turn recommended her to King Phillip and in 1559 Sofonisba became officially a court painter and a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Elisabeth of Valois (the Mary mentioned above had died, apparently).

Sofonisba spent 14 years in residence with the royal Spanish court, guiding the artistic development of the ladies in residence in addition to painting dozens of portraits of the extended family, many of which were destroyed in a 17th century court fire. At the age of 40, due to the death of her patron, Sofonisba accepted an arranged marriage with a Sicilian nobleman and left Spain forever. After her first husband died, she fell in love with a much younger Genoese nobleman, Orazio Lomellino. They married and lived apparently very happily together until her death in 1625.

A portrait by Anthony van Dyck, 1624, who credited her with much useful artist guidance

According to Wiki, “Anguissola’s adoring second husband, who described her as small of frame, yet “great among mortals,” buried her with honor in Palermo.Seven years later, on the anniversary of what would have been her 100th birthday, her husband placed an inscription on her tomb that read in part:

To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.

Fathers and daughters, lovers lost and found, the waxing and waning of empire, women known and unknown who have danced across the planet – all manner of delights await us when we spend a moment with art and then dig for the deeper meaning. In this time of lives lost and found, months of trial and isolation, I try to reach to the possible and the positive, to find meaning in the present through the exploration of the past. Thanks for coming on this journey with me today.

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A Christmas like no other…

It’s December 15th here in Berlin, and tomorrow we start a hard lockdown, or, I should say, we start another hard lockdown, where all shops except basically groceries and pharmacies will be closed up tight. My friends in the Netherlands started a similar lockdown today today and theirs runs until January 19th – ours is nominally until only January 10th, but with caveats that it may be extended. So with this all front of mind, I decided to suit up, head out, and enjoy as much as I could of this most odd and unusual conclusion of this most odd and unusual year.

If you’ve been following this blog at all for the past few years, you’ll have a dim recollection that Christmas Markets in Berlin are among my favorite things on the planet. I’ve been fortunate to have been here for part, if not all, of the last six Decembers, so I’ve seen my fair share of the local offerings (which I am told pale in some in other cities, but so be it). I’ve been to somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or so in Berlin and other German cities and a few more in places as far-flung as Vilnius, Stettin, and Marseille. For someone who loves the spirit of the holiday (but dislikes the commercial aspect, the religious aspect, and has weak family ties), it’s the perfect solution to the midwinter doldrums, particularly in these northern latitudes.

So it was with more that a bit of regret that I saw this, one of the only markets even open at this moment, the one at Breitscheidplatz, reduced to…

A remnant of its former glory

You can just make out, on the other side of the security bollards (installed since the truck bomb in 2016, a few little huts where normally dozens are crowded around with lights and greens and hordes of happy revelers. And even these modest outposts will have to close, I believe, on the morrow.

Here’s a close-up of one of the street huts, a fairly standard one selling the amusingly named “Little Quark Balls” and the Hungarian favorite, Langos (a fried doughy thing). Note the disinfectant…adds a certain “je ne sais quoi” to the greasy offerings, or so I’m told…

But just walking down the street, Berlin’s famed Kurfürstendamm, things looked, well, more or less normal for a December afternoon. Folks were out strolling about and queueing for shops and chatting with friends. Not surprisingly, Berlin’s edgy humor was, as often is the case, on full view:

…and on sale, to boot…

Not surprisingly, having been given exactly two days to prepare for a four-week Christmas-and-New-Year’s lockdown, people were doing their level best to get everything done by asap. Although Escada and Versace have given up the ghost and just shut down entirely, Louis Vuitton, still functioning, had seen fit to give people appointments (Termin) to make sure everyone got their LV swag in an orderly fashion:

A little further away, I was more enchanted by a line at a local bookstore. Take that, Amazon:

But it’s always the small things that continue to enchant me in this faire city. One store showcased a number of lovely small nativities from around the world, just cuz. This one from the Czech Republic seemed particularly appropriate for this year…making do with what we have, and being grateful:

So about this time my Grinch’s heart was beginning to soften. But what almost moved me to tears was when this ‘brand ambassador’ ran out of her shop and sat down in front of me, imploring for a bit of a cuddle. How could one possibly resist?

“You know you want to, you really want to…”

Sweet boo. I do miss canine energy. So when I spied this shop sign a few steps further, I almost hooted out loud. Yes, hearing ads for dogs “exclusively here with us.” Free consult included:

I headed away from the fancier neighborhood back toward my more modest neck of the woods. And here, of course, another line, this one for TKMaxx, the local version of TJMaxx, this one much longer. This line in actuality extends twice as far as you can see here, everyone queueing patiently. Thank god for iPhones:


Nearby was the most curious “COVID compliance” sign I’ve seen yet. I think the translation is: “Don’t cucumber. Mask for the beet. We abide by the Corona rules.” Clearly my German is still not yet quite up to par. Corrections grateful accepted:

Quick update – my translator chimed in once this blog was published. Rumgurken means wandering around, aimlessly, and vor die Rübe would be cover your head. I think it liked the earlier version…so basically “Wear a mask and stay close to home.” (Better with vegetables.)

Well, by now as is so often the case, I was cold and thirsty. Happily, this past weekend I had discovered a lovely little delicatessen not far from my house that served up a damn fine white wine “Glühwein” with orange slices, so I dropped in for another dose. The proprietor graciously agreed to pose for me pre-dip:

One scoop or two?

It was, as it had been before, absolutely smashing, and he assured me that since he was indeed a delicatessen he was allowed to stay open. I told him I would be back regularly. It may not look like much, but damn, this stuff is fine:

Back home again, much improved from my five kilometers and my brief brush with conviviality, I thought I would show off one of my treasures from today. I “elfed myself” with a lovely pair of 15 euro knock-off pearl earrings from my favorite German and Thai jewelry store. Merry Christmas to me.

Ho ho ho…

….and now I will bid you a fond adieu on this quickly darkening afternoon as we begin our Advent retreat, with the thought that we must, all of us, all together, everywhere, set our intention and find our inner resolve to endure this period as one world, one people, one family, and do what it takes to get this nasty virus out of our lives forever. Wear the damn mask, do the damn social distancing, make your damn peace with Zoom. In the immortal words of Nike:

With that exhortation, please accept my warmest wishes to you and my fervent hopes and dreams that 2021…brings us all more health and happiness. Not a high bar, but fingers crossed. ❤

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Wandering and wondering in Warsaw

The days are shortening and the temperatures are dropping – on this side of the Atlantic at least. T and I took advantage of a mild early fall and a seeming absence of coronavirus spikes to make a quick trip to Warsaw, Poland, the goals being to strengthen friendships and to fan potential business collaborations. T had never been to Warsaw before; an added incentive. We decided to take the six-hour ride on the intercity train, even though I was a bit concerned about border crossings. (I shouldn’t have been.) It felt, aside from the masks and the limited seating, a bit like The Before Times, and for that I was grateful.

I’ve been to Warsaw before, on my blitz trip through Poland in 2015, and I felt many of the same tugs and tangents on this trip as I did then. Warsaw is a complicated place in many of the same ways that lots of European cities, including Berlin, are complicated – war, devastation, rebuilding – but with a different edge that I am still struggling to explain to myself or to describe well to you. Jarring, in a way. Painful. Resilient. All this and more. Perhaps some of the images I share will help us both.

Arriving in Warsaw and exiting the train station, one is greeted, as is often the case in Poland, by a huge shopping mall, this one with a curious aquatic feel:

Once inside, it is pretty much your usual Euro-brands consumer paradise, and it is a good distraction for travelers with hours to kill. But I wanted to introduce T to some of the more, er, uniquely Polish attractions, so we remained immune to the sirens of commerce.

Our crib for this trip was the Hotel Bristol, a magnificent pile with a complicated history. First constructed in 1899-1901, it opened to great fanfare and was the gathering place of  glitterati until the local German commanders saw fit to make it their own in 1939. (I am particularly fond of the place because my Uncle Bob mentions it in his letters home in 1938.) It survived the war unscathed somehow, returned to being a hotel under the new communist regime, later serving briefly a library for the local university, and then sliding into sad disrepair until being renovated in 1991-93 and then again in 2013. (The bedding is not to be believed).

I started the tour with the old town, of course, a short walk from the hotel. This part of the city was Ground Zero for the Warsaw Uprising from August through October 1944, a tragic historical note that is difficult to equal. As a result, although the Bristol kept her footing, literally every other building for miles around was leveled and more. So the charming old town that is there to be see and explored…is all a complete reconstruction of the original place and buildings. Here’s a bronze map showing the main layout:

The big squarish thing on the right is the royal castle, originally built in 1598. The market square on the left, looking like an open depression, is now the charming touristy “beer garden” seen below:

If you read my posts regularly, you’ve seen quite of few of these. I do so love the way Europe tumbles out of doors as soon as it’s even vaguely warm and stays that way until the winter storms drive the smokers away. (I even don’t mind smokers here as much.) I just love sitting and watching the world go by in this manner.

T indulged me in one of my main urban passions, and that is, of course, museum slogging. I’ve learned that city museums have some of the most intriguing artifacts and insights, and that proved to be the case that morning with the Museum of Warsaw, a wonderful resource that is actually located in and through six or so of those very same buildings you see above. Wiki tells us “The various collections in the fields of archeology, painting, graphics, iconography, sculpture, decorative arts, numismatics and architectural drawings, now exceed 250 000 objects.” And what a deliciously varied and curious set of collections they were indeed. Here T ponders….a fish, I think…

You’ll note the yellow arrows. I don’t know if these were added during corona times for proper spacing or if they’ve always been in place. This museum is a literal maze – multi-building, multi-floor, multi-tunneled, quite the wild ride. But the yellow arrows kept us on the straight and narrow, as it were.

The most hard-hitting fact we had to confront in the museum (in a well-curated wall chart) was how the local civilians were affected by World War II. In the period 1941-1944, the population of the city went from roughly 1.6 million to 160,000. Yup, you read that right. Only ten percent (*ten percent*) of the city’s inhabitants survived. And yet they persisted.

Aiding the fight, here’s someone I didn’t expect to see hanging in the portrait gallery:

Meet August Agbola O’Brown (1895-1976), a jazz drummer born in Lagos, Nigeria who came to Warsaw from London in 1922, at which point he was, mostly likely, the only African man in town, if not in the country. He found musical success, settled down, married a Polish woman and had had two children by the late 1920s. He became a soldier during the uprising and fought with the partisans under the handle “Ali.” O’Brown survived the war and re-immigrated to London at the end of the 1950s, working again as a musician. Wiki tells us “His friends and neighbors remembered him as a very intelligent, courteous person, and a polyglot (he spoke six languages).”

Another set of treasures in the museum – a collection of advertising on boxes used for all manner of everyday items, dating from the 1920s or so. I am enchanted by their gentle and colorful creativity, as well as the clever presentation:

As we were trying our damndest to navigate to the end of the exhibits, an *extremely* friendly guide buttonholed us and tried to give us a very personal tour. Before we managed to slither away, he gave us a memorable background story about this interesting piece:

In the process of designing a set of plates intended for the Hotel Bristol, Pablo Picasso was asked what his three favorite things were in life. He answered, “Art of course, the Blues, and Polish vodka,” thus obviously endearing himself to the locals for all time.

And it must take a lot of vodka to understand all the pain that this city and its inhabitants have endured. Memorials to the dead are everywhere and appear to be, for the most part, well maintained and well-floralized. Here’s one in the old town:

Warsaw Uprising August 1944

“The field hospital of the home army’s “Gustaw” battalion, commanded  by Dr. “Morwa” Tadeusz Podgorski, was located here in the basements of the buildings at Kilinski Street No. 3. After the fall of the old town on September 2nd, 11 inujred people who could not be evacuated through the sewers including 2 nurses were murdered by the Germans.”

Yes. And these are frequent throughout the city, specific, painful, and clearly still deeply personally remembered. Closer to our hotel, a heartfelt memorial to the unknown fallen, this particular one the most important of all such in the country:

This venue is situated in the only remaining portion of the Saxon Palace, a ginormous pile that used to grace this spot and may again, if current hopes prevail. The guards change every hour, on the hour, every day of the year.

One more odd historical quirk – a memorial to Herbert Hoover. Yes, THAT Herbert Hoover. The one that we remember, if we remember him at all, as the overseer of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. But he has another – and perhaps more lastingly significant – role in Poland.

“After World War I, he became the head of the American Relief Administration and organized one of the biggest humanitarian initiatives in history. Its beneficiary was, to a large extent, Poland…in February 1919 alone, 16,000 freight railway cars and 500 river barges…were unloaded in Gdansk. (In addition) Hoover donated thousands of horses, cars, tractors, large quantities of dynamite and nitroglycerin, locomotives, machines, medicines, and medical equipment…American aid covered over 1.3 million Polish children fed  in 3000 cities and villages, mostly in eastern Poland…Herbert Hoover received the Honorary Citizenship of the Capital City of Warsaw and Lviv in 1921 and the title of Honorary Citizen of the Republic of Poland in 1922. He also organized food aid for Poland after World War II.”

No wonder they’re happy to see Americans, in a country that never forgets.

Well, by now you’ve probably completely forgotten that the reason T and I even went to Warsaw was for fun and frolic with pens and friends. I feel duty-bound to provide you with actual evidence that that event took place as planned and anticipated, accompanied by excellent local brew and chow:

We live in interesting times. But I continue to be very grateful for all that is still available to us, particularly our good friends, whether in person (rare and all the more valuable) or increasingly through these electronic media. And the longer I live, the more I become aware of how the sufferings of others have led to the rich life we have led and are leading, even constrained as most of us are at the moment. I wish for you, my dear readers, every moment of meaning and connection you can conjure these days. Know that I appreciate you reading my thoughts more than you can imagine.

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