Besides feverishly studying German (ahem), many of my waking hours here in Berlin were spent, er, walking the streets. As you’ve probably surmised, I love walking in general, but on wide, well-maintained urban sidewalks with little to no elevation through multiple European fascinating neighborhoods – well, that’s just my version of a controlled substance, and I’ve been indulging at every opportunity.
The English writer Aldous Huxley once described Los Angeles as “72 suburbs in search of a city,” a statement which continues to be an apt description of that sprawling megalopolis, but a similar concept, albeit containing a lower number, could also be used to describe Berlin. For many years there were 20 “boroughs” in Berlin, but with some administrative reform after the city’s reunification, there are now 12. Each and every one of them, particularly those which were paired *simply because they were so different,* has its own unique personality and slavish following. Like Portland, Oregon, where I spent many years, people tend to identify as much by their borough as the larger metropolis itself, and most of us have favorites.
As a result, an afternoon’s ramble could roam through two or three of these area, from the quiet residential neighborhoods of Charlottenburg to the popular tourists spots in Prenzlauer Berg; from grungy streets with wall-to-wall outdoor cafes covered in graffiti in Kreutzburg to huge governmental or commercial office buildings on stately boulevards in Mitte. And while it’s simply impossible to put much of this into a blog post, today I though I would focus on some of the more off-beat elements I have seen on my rambles over the past month or so. There’s no real story here or much coherence at all; just a lot of shots that explain my love affair with Berlin that I wanted to share with you.
Let’s start with cafes. Since the first several times I traveled here the climate was less than hospitable, I hadn’t seen the way that social life literally tumbles out onto the streets with the advent of warm weather, outdoor cafes sprouting like dandelions along many side streets. Here’s just one exemplar of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these inviting venues:
…and in the cafes, food and drink abound, of course, to say nothing of spirited conversation, family life, and the occasional sizzling romance. Ambiance aside, the spring months herald a kind of gourmet madness in Berlin – the advent and mass consumption of Spargel (asparagus). And not just any asparagus, mind you, but the big white ones, a variety I have never seen (or noticed, at least) in the US. They’ve been on the menu continuously during my stay in town, available in some shape or other for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Here’s a sample menu just to whet your appetite:
Moving along to some of the quirky and wonderful sights that have cheered my days…. On Museum Island, near the amazing collection of art galleries assembled there featuring some of the wonders of ancient and modern civilization (you see the columns of the Altes Museum in the background), one finds this welcoming receptacle:
In the Nollendorfplatz area, known as Berlin’s Boys Town, next door to a bona fide ‘leather’ store, I found evidence that the famous author, philosopher, spiritualist and esthetic Rudolf Steiner had lived in the neighborhood for some years with his second wife:
Ya never know. The juxtapositions and contradictions abound. In another example, here and there around town are currently a set of oddly dressed “buddy” bears (the bear being the symbol of Berlin, as it is of Bern, Switzerland, as well). The entire set numbers around 100; this particular one stands in front of an historic evangelical church in Spandau – an quirky pairing, to my mind:
…and in another historic neighborhood, this one the Nikolaiviertel, the reconstructed heart of the 13th century medieval town square, one sees an evening tango lesson. According to one of my teachers, Berlin is mad for tango. Who knew?
My friend Kurt, an expert on travel and tourism, says that one of the big allures of Berlin is what he calls “dark tourism,” the fact that Berlin “leans in” to its long and difficult history. (Imagine if the US had a “Museum of Slavery,” for example, or a “Memorial to the Native American Genocide”). In a small example of that spirit, here’s a poster on a fence outside a small boxing gym, commemorating the life of a young Sinti (a Roma people) boxer, Johann Trollman, who should have won the German light-weight title in 1933 but didn’t due to the strict Aryan laws. Imprisoned for his racial impurity, he died at the hand of someone he had bested in an informal camp match. His title was retrospectively recognized and awarded in 2003:
As a result of those “dark times,” people tell me Germans in general – and Berliners in particular – are very serious about their demonstrations, always ready to give the government and the press a piece of their mind. When I was in Dresden, I saw the exhibit of the “returning wolves,” a protest against the neo-Nazi demonstrations that occur every Monday there. The neo-Nazis are here as well, but the counter-protesters outnumber them by so many orders of magnitude it barely matters. I happened to stumble into a march early in my stay – I was happy to see so much positive activity against racism and so much evidence for an open and welcoming city:
Just a few days before I left town in June, I was traveling up to the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp (more about that later, perhaps), and I happened to see a group of official transit workers…apparently having a little *party* at work. I harkened back to contracted tradesmen in Denmark going through astonishing amounts of beer in the course of a workday, but I found it just a tad astonishing that these gentlemen would be throwing a few back…in uniform, as it were. Maybe they had, er, just confiscated it from a minor and had to dispose of it quickly…
This next picture, advertising mattresses of all things, greeted me early one morning in the subway. It was almost as good as a cup of Sharif’s coffee from the bakery in terms of waking me up:
…and I’ll conclude this cavalcade of images with another cafe shot, this one from the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, now one of my favorites. Not only is the establishment in question reputed to have some of the best burgers in town, but their facade sports a slogan we should all keep in mind:
Attributed to Frederich Schiller himself (I checked; they’re not kidding), the German poet, philosopher, physician, historian, and playwright encourages us all to keep in mind that “Every day is a new chance to do what you wish.” A great reminder of the freedom many of us have, and sometimes forget we do.
On a very different note, I have pictures and ideas for three more blogs from my ‘student daze,’ but I’m not sure anyone would care to read them. These are, in no particular order, “Jewish Berlin,” “A Trip to Sachsenhausen,” and “The Gourmet Floor of KaDeWe.” Readers, this is your chance to weigh in. Would you be interested in any of these? If so, which should I do first? I also have material for my time in Denmark, but before I get too distracted, I’d like to see if my loyal readers (and there are more of you than I ever thought possible) have a preference. Either leave me a message in a blog response or write to me privately. Thanks for coming with me on this amazing journey; please know that this blog gives me a great deal of pleasure and encourages me to write better than I thought possible – just by knowing you are reading it.