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.

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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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Green places and spaces

As you know, I am truly a cement-hugging, subway-loving urban gal. However, when my dear friend B strongly recommended that I visit the Liebermann-Villa am Wannsee to see the current exhibit and *even went so far as to give me the expensive slick and glossy brochure,* I felt a strong compulsion to overcome my aversion to nature and venture into that green and leafy southwestern suburb to explore a new (to me) region of Berlin.

Wannsee, near Potsdam, is one of the western-most suburbs of Berlin and the lake there is actually two connected bodies of water, forming one of the largest natural swimming areas in all of Europe. It became very popular at the beginning of the 20th century and now sports an astonishing range of summer time attractions. You may recall the name also in connection to one of the more difficult days of Berlin history, that of the location of the 1942 conference which saw discussion of the Final Solution. As with so many things in this part of the world, the gentle summer playground complete with sail boats, wide sandy beaches filled with laughing children, and specially designated nude bathing zones, rubs shoulders with the darker echos of the past. Here’s a shot of the lake on this cherubic July afternoon:

Today, thanks to B as you know, I was on a mission to explore a particular spot on that lake, the summer house of Max Liebermann, one of Berlin’s foremost Impressionist painters. This edifice, a lovely building in and of itself with an extensive gardens and open to the public year-round, has changing exhibits of the artist’s work, and at the moment is featuring a joint presentation with another Impressionist artist worthy of note, Lesser Ury. This exhibit focuses on their works which showcase the energy of Berlin in the early decades of the 20th century, and I’ll give you an example in a moment. But first, I wanted to share the gentle loveliness of this particular venue. Here’s a shot of the house itself, designed by Liebermann himself and built around 1910 for his summer escapes:

It’s a very pleasant place indeed and I could see lots of people sitting quietly about, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying a little nosh and even having a little snooze. But being the Type A character that I am, these activities didn’t pass much muster with me, and I found myself quickly focusing on some of the odder aspects of the Villa, which included the calves (yes, calves) of this particular visitor:

Living art

Ahem. Max Liebermann (1847-1935) grew up in a well-to-do Jewish banking family in Berlin whose digs were located just next to the Brandenburg Gate in Pariser Platz overlooking the Tiergarten. For those of you unfamiliar with Berlin, this is basically Beacon Hill, Bel Air, and Potomac, Maryland all rolled up into one. While he was an Impressionist painter about which you can read elsewhere, he also reminded me of Ludwig Pollack, the subject of one of my posts in February, the Jewish archeologist in Rome. Both of these men grew up as wealthy and privileged secular Europeans, had enormously successful careers, but saw at the end of their lives the near total destruction of all they held dear. It gives one pause. But before one reaches for the bottle, let me continue the story. Here’s a shot of Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate late in Liebermann’s era, some time before the Second World War, a vestige of another lost world:

…and a verrrry interesting shot of Liebermann and his wife Martha in that lovely apartment (and here I challenge the marriage counselors among us to unpack this photo):

Liebermann painted a great deal in and around Berlin, but not simply the statues and monuments which were being built literally as he lived there. Rather, he and Ury, among others of a less traditional artistic bent, were fascinated by and tried to record the dynamism of the evolving city during the decades of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. They focused on moments and movements, in some cases in the evening hours, rather than on people or places, examples of which you see here. I am charmed by their focus on night and light:

The exhibit I came to see in the Villa was rather small, but very powerful, and I will now follow Liebermann’s work much more carefully.

Since too much time in the sun and fresh air makes me itchy, it wasn’t long before I headed back into the belly of the beast. But it was such a lovely day that I decided to take a little longer to get home by walking down the Landwehrkanal from Tiergarten to my flat.

The site of city fortifications as early as the end of the 15th century, the Landwehrkanal was realized as part of a watery transportation network in Berlin between 1845 and 1850. One of the darker parts of its history includes the dumping of many people into its murky depths, including the Polish activist Rosa Luxemburg in 1919, allegedly not dredged out for six months or so. But today, its bucolic vistas invite loads of hikers and bikers as well as a steady stream of river boaters. I haven’t done this yet, but it’s on the calendar for the next time T is in town:

Happily, one of our favorite restaurants, Schnitzelei, is situated just exactly on the way home, and today I dipped in for a little refreshment. Here’s a shot of the view from my table out toward the canal as I waited for my lunch to arrive. Please note the gender equality meme…okay, it’s subtle, but hint hint…the father (on the right) is feeding the baby:

…and here’s a house specialty, the “German Tapas” plate, delivered just before I started gnawing on the table. I’m having (from left) stuffed cabbage, plums wrapped in bacon, and a groats and parsley salad. Oh, and a lovely unfiltered craft beer. Life could be worse.

Cheers, dears, and until next time, thanks for riding around on my shoulder.

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A weekend in the countryside…

As you may know, I occasionally spend time in the Abruzzo region of Italy where T has a rural retreat and his workshop. Being a compulsively urban animal, I keep these visits to an absolute minimum since I invariably fall victim to some lurking natural peril, including  insect bites, poison ivy, nippy dogs, or my singular challenge of sun allergy. But sometimes the attractions are so strong that I have to overcome my aversion to a lack of subways and sidewalks, and this past weekend was one of those times. Two delightful sets of visiting friends plus the annual village festival were enough to lure me away from Berlin for a few days, and I’m so glad I made the effort.

Caprafico barely meets the definitive of a village, but that hasn’t stopped the locals from wanting to build their own church on site. If they come up with a certain amount of money, the local diocese (or some administrative body) will help them with the remainder, a powerful incentive in this economically depressed region of the country. As one of the money-makers, a festival is held every July. It’s a great time for the community to come together, eat local delicacies, and enjoy some live performers as well as hot Cuban line dancing. The latter was just getting started when we arrived:

Visiting friend P stopped eating the delectable arrosticini long enough to take some video to share of the festivities beneath an almost full moon:

But the belle of the ball was the adorable two-year-old daughter of a couple seen in the top photo. Hard to catch a Dancing Queen in action, but I think I managed:

The next day we heard about an art exhibit in a castle in a nearby hill town…and honestly. how can you say “No” to that? So after a grand luncheon of more wonderfully roasted meats, off we went.

But I must admit, we had failed to accurately understand the amount of effort needed to to actually reach the exhibit on foot. Needless to say, there were no elevators, just steep ancient staircases….

Roccascalegna, our destination, is a small village dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, at a time of great tension between two local armies, the Angevin (remnants of the French powers) and the Argonese (remnantss of the Spanish powers), both fighting for control of the region. Known for a long stretch of time as “Death Valley, the region has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. The Castello, seen at the top of the hill, is the main attraction of the town, not surprisingly, and the pedestrian path leading up to it has some delightful tourist attractions sprinkled along it, including small shops and bars, as seen in the yellow-ish portion on the left:

I was interested to learn that you can actually rent the castle for about $100 a day, and the mayor’s hope is that it will become a popular wedding and event destination….see this helpful article for details:

While I was definitely not prepared with the appropriate footwear, with some time and patience I eventually made it to the top. The views en route were well worth the effort:

The exhibit itself took place in what had been the baron’s chapel, built in 1577 (and now beautifully restored). Local residents at the time could attend, but they had to pay a special tax to do so. Seems it’s no wonder people in this region still yearn to have their own church. This room exhibited a special Italian-Iranian collaboration to use local Abruzzan wool in the creation of traditional Persian carpets. The other room showed abstract landscapes:

I snuck a look out one of the chapel windows that looked more like a defense position than a window for illumination, but then one could never be at rest in those days, it seems, even at prayer:

Here’s a shot of our intrepid group of art lovers and hikers, still standing as we exited the medieval portion of the village:

Back at home, we relaxed on the deck with some local cheese and vino, the perfect end to a beautiful day. But when I think about Abruzzo, some of my most heartfelt emotions are always reserved for the neighborhood dog who always seems to show up when I’m around, knowing I might need an escort through the brush and always hopeful of a bone or two…

Vale, Fido….I miss you…and until next time….

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The Power of Pleasures and the Growth of Gratitude

Just this past week, June 25, 2019 to be precise, The Atlantic magazine ran an article entitled “The Yale Happiness Class, Distilled,” by Joe Pinsker. In it he reports that this year’s Aspen Institute hosted Laurie Santos, the Yale psychology professor who developed and teaches the class “Psychology and the Good Life,” to present an hour-long “crash course” to summarize her course’s main points –  the biases against human happiness – and to offer ways to counteract them.

The first ‘glitch” (her word) in experiencing pleasure deals with “how the brain acclimates to things it’s repeatedly exposed to.” This is true of really good stuff, it seems, as well as to annoying things like subway noise or the crying baby upstairs. One category of this acclimation is called “hedonistic adaptation,” or getting used to something that is awesome but that seems less awesome over time. This explains, at least to me, why so many people spend so much time strolling the mall or shopping online – the thrill of today’s purchase fades pretty quickly and needs to be replaced with…the thrill of the next purchase. (Americans seem to be terrifyingly good at this at the moment.)

Santos’s prescription for this problem is to “buy experiences, not things.” One anticipates the trip, for example, enjoys it while it lasts, and then revels in the memories for longer than… the joy of owning a new car might last, to use her example. A second prescription is to be consciously grateful for what one already has, through an actual journal – my friend H in HH was telling me about this recently – or just through a brief reflection, either upon rising or going to sleep.

The second happiness glitch, according to Santos, is how our minds focus on comparisons rather than absolutes. She uses the example of Olympic medalists and how the bronze winners invariably are happier than the silver winners, because the silvers are #2 when they would like to be #1, and the bronzers are #3 when then could otherwise…not even be anywhere near the podium. We apparently always take a bead on where we are, and …quickly look to where it could be better.

And there’s an app for that- which is to imagine living without something that we are currently holding up for inspection – “What if I didn’t have air conditioning?,” one might ask, on a scorchingly hot Sunday afternoon. One could try to be without it for a night or two and then appreciate it all more when it’s back. Alternatively, one could do a thought experiment and think of what it would be like…if this particular friend were not in our life, if we hadn’t adopted this particular cat, if we hadn’t chosen this apartment. More personally at the moment, if we didn’t have the freedom to turn down a teaching contract in Japan this summer…to enjoy the balcony in Berlin.

So where am I going with all this, you might ask…and rightly so. What I immediately thought when reading this article is just how amazingly….Berlin continues to be a source of pleasure for me, and how I am trying to constantly be mindful of those joys large and small and to develop my own sense of gratitude. I owe a great deal in this specific regard to my dear friend J, who rarely speaks about anything without quickly adding how happy she is about this or that. She currently spending the summer on her enchanted isle in Maine, and so happy I am that she is there, enjoying the coastal vistas and keeping a warm lap for our shared (and now mostly her) cat.

I thought I would, therefore, share some snippets of my life over the past few months to give you a sense of the small pleasures that populate my days and keep me mindful, grateful, and with a fairly high step count on my iPhone.

Here’s a view of Museum Island (on the right), the Berliner Fernsehturm sticking up into the clouds and the River Spree on a clear spring day:

On the other side of town, walking along the Ku’damm the other day, I saw a very talented sand artist. I’m always a sucker for a lifelike but very immobile crocodile sculpture:

But besides art and culture (very broadly defined, that culture sometimes), one of the things I love about Berlin is that politics and current events are never far from anyone’s view. Here’s a recent election placard that carries a profoundly simple message….and FWIW, a reason that it’s no wonder the Greens did so well:

“Europe. The best idea that Europe had. Come, we’re building the new Europe!”

…and this delightful concert poster that carries its own deep hope that people can triumph over politics. I’m planning to be there:

Day to day, the best for me is that humor is everywhere….the Germans may often be considered gruff, direct, and unfriendly, but in my experience, Berliners are always ready with a wink and a chuckle:

But mostly I delight in the vibrant life of the city, the constant cavalcade of activities and events, a truly moveable feast that always takes me by surprise. Here’s a group of dancers from Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the Carnival of Cultures parade a few weeks back….However, I do believe that guy on the far right might be an outlier…

…and this great ad from the subway…which is, actually, a reminder from the municipal sanitation authorities to pick up after yourself and stow your trash appropriately…even when the blessed event is a wedding…

…so I leave you with this final message….that I find pleasure here every day in ways large and small and that I am constantly reminded that this chapter of my life is a totally unexpected miracle for which I will always, always try to be very grateful. (Except, of course, for those days when I really do have to run to the mall for a new pair of shoes and some really overpriced cosmetics…)

Bye bye for now…

Posted in Berlin, Germany, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Utterly Utrecht

As you may know, a good bit of my European travel over the last several years has been occasioned by pen shows.  Writing instruments in general and fountain pens in particular have been a significant part of my life for a couple decades now and responsible for some of my most enjoyable moments and best friendships, to say nothing of a new husband more recently. While I was in the US, I not only went to (probably) dozens of pens shows, but I also ran one for five years and served on the national board of the hobby association. Since crossing the pond and particularly since finding T, we have been regulars on the European circuit, where we attend annual shows in London, Hamburg, Madrid, Barcelona and Bologna, among other cities. But just this past April, we were notified of a brand new show to be held in Utrecht, the Netherlands, by THE most energetic and enthusiastic person either of us had ever met. We agreed to be among the marquee attendees and quickly made our plans to head west in early June. And we’re so glad we did.

We were not disappointed in the least. The pen show was well organized, well run, well attended, and oodles of fun to boot, with new pen friends and brisk sales. Kudos to Chaïm Bruijning together with his amazing wife Christa. But in addition to Everything Pen for several days, we had the chance to see and explore a new city, and that’s the part I’ll be writing about today.

Utrecht is situated smack dab in the middle of the Netherlands and is hence a major rail and transit point for the region. Its new train station sees more passengers annually than Amsterdam’s and that’s saying a lot. It has several universities and is a commercial and high-tech hub, with a population around 350,000 souls, many many of whom are young and fill the clubs and pubs that dot the city. But of course I start by being interested in the older history, and there’s plenty of that as well.

While Utrecht truly developed in the Middle Ages, as seen in the map above, there is evidence of Bronze Age habitation prior to the development of a Roman fort, Traiectum, which apparently denoted its location as a possible Rhine River crossing point. That name evolved into Trecht with the added leading “U” meaning “downriver.” The location of the fortress became the location of the Dom (cathedral), which is the green square in the middle of the map above, just over the small canal. The Franks turned Utrecht into a center of power for the Church and it has been known as the religious center of the country since the 8th century.

But secular me just loves to wander city streets, and here’s a shot of the entrance to the old city, taken from the point of entrance at the far right of the map above:

Oh, these little Dutch cities are just heaven. I fell in love with Leiden last June, and now I can see this will be a life-long addiction. One just strolls slowly down the medieval byways that meander along and away from the canals and enjoys the bits of life that present themselves one after another…here’s a coffee shop window that got my full and complete attention for a moment or two:

…a few steps further, a lovely family waits for a shopper to finish her errands:

The canals themselves are charming and form an integral part of the urban landscape…and along this one in particular I spotted what I believe to have been a…Hijab Hen Fest, a group of Muslim women celebrating the engagement or wedding of one of their party, with significant help from their mobile devices, of course:

Here’s a Swatch store in what apparently had been a butcher shop in former times…if you can make out the writing over the door:

…and of course we dipped into the Dom to see if we could sense the leylines that we had been told ran through the site. Here T is boning up on his ecclesiastical knowledge and seeing firsthand the impact of the Reformation on the high arts in situ:

But for good or ill, Utrecht is not just a medieval village. Time marches on, and so does good and bad architecture. In the period of the 1960s or so, there was a movement to modernize the city, paving over some canals and building some new neighborhoods which, to my eye, are an acquired taste. Here’s an example along with some canal-side animal art that appears to have an environmental and recycling theme:

The railroad station, mentioned above, has a most delightful feature that helps travelers recharge their phones and connect with their Inner Child all at the same time:

Speaking of kids, I was charmed and enchanted that our hotel had separate bathrooms….just for them. I tried to put my child molestation fears to rest for just a brief moment and to enjoy the sheer whimsy and thoughtfulness of the idea. The doors are to scale, but I can’t figure out a way to show that, so you’ll just have to take my word for it:

And of course it wouldn’t be the Netherlands if it weren’t for bikes, so many bikes that I spent a good bit of my time shrieking and trying to stay out of their way as they zipped around the city in and among the pedestrians as well as in their own lanes. Here’s a art gallery that obviously attracts a few peddlers…

…so finally I’ll leave you with my attempt to create a modern Vermeer shot of the long lovely summer evening that we enjoyed before returning to Berlin:

Farewell, Utrecht for now…I can’t wait to return…and to explore more of your welcoming land.

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A slice of Schwerin

I was fortunate that my good friend K recently invited M and me to go visit our friend U in Schwerin, giving us a chance to see the famous castle there and take a turn around the historic small town. It was May Day, a public holiday in Germany and most of Europe, celebrating the return of spring (tick-tock, still waiting!) and workers’ rights. It struck us as not a bit ironic to be walking through the former home of royalty on the day that celebrated the common man and woman, but what the heck, history is nothing if not ironic. In addition, Schwerin had the benefit of being a town we didn’t know well as well as the capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern which runs runs along the Baltic Sea in the northeastern corner of the country – Angela Merkel territory.

That being said, Schwerin is most known for its castle, sometimes called the “Neuschwanstein of the North.” Located on a lake and looking from the outside like something you might find in a Tim Burton film, the castle dates back in its earliest incarnation to roughly the 10th century, although it assumed the beginnings of its current Dutch Renaissance form in the 17th century. Here we are preparing to enter and start our exploration:

Searching for history, as well as a bit of central heating.

For most of German history, of course, Germany wasn’t even a country. Rather, it was a confederation of nearly 40 sovereign states, the leaders of which were at each other’s throats a good deal of the time. As a result, the country is chock-a-block full of castles that, unlike my childhood fantasies of princesses and happily ever after, served as strongholds to defend and protect a range of very competing interests. The Dukes of Mecklenburg were particularly unsuccessful during a good deal of their history (you haven’t heard much of them, have you now?), and as a result this castle seems to express its inferiority complex in the way some people sport expensive watches and fast cars. Here, for example, is the throne room:

Behind me as I took this shot turned out to be one of the first examples of indoor heating in a building of this type (located in the throne room, naturally, to keep a chill off the Royal Bum). Behold the first imperial radiator:

I won’t bore you with too many of the features of the building itself (except to say that it is definitely worth a look if you are there – some amazing craftsmanship, beautiful porcelain, and a great gun collection), but I will share the most interesting living art I saw that day. Speaking of Tim Burton, this fellow visitor looks ready for Halloween and wouldn’t go amiss in Seattle or Berlin. Nothing wrong this his parenting skills, though – he had two smalls under excellent and loving control.

Here’s a external shot of the building, complete with a view into a lower-level garden and restaurant. IMHO, the decorative effects are a bit overwhelming:

In addition to its function as a nearly-restored historic castle, this edifice has a modern life as the seat of the state assembly (Landstag). That end of the building has been massively restored to contemporary standards and houses a state-of-the art assembly forum and assorted support offices. Here’s an arty shot of the staircase:

And located near the formal meeting rooms, I was charmed by the inside smoking accommodation, complete with air filtration, thoughtfully provided for those hard-working public servants who have not been able to overcome their addiction to the Evil Weed:

Hanging not far away one spots a huge mural with a cautionary theme as to the results of not playing so nicely on the world stage. No wonder the parliamentarians are still smoking.

Once we had completed our walk through the castle, we wandered into the center for a stroll and little nosh. En route we passed this remnant of the old town, a building which really does challenge one to pick it up and put it in your pocket. (The man in the lower left must either be geocaching or maybe just really likes manhole covers.)

U, who comes from Schwerin, took us to a charming bistro on the edge of the lake for lunch. After a great meal and once outside the restaurant, I spotted this lovely little statue evidencing sibling concern. You have to look closely to get the idea, but ‘it’s actually raining under the umbrella.’ The darker damper circle surrounding the children’s feet gives you a clue:

Finally, since it was May Day, we couldn’t leave town without passing by the small demonstration taking place in the Platz by the cathedral (I’ll spare you, but it’s the biggest and oldest building in town, dating from 1160). The red signs represent the trade unionists who, like most of the parties at the moment (as far as I can tell) support a strong Europe with democratic principles. How you do this, exactly, is currently subject to a lot of discussion and disagreement, no surprise.

On our way back to Berlin, K, M, and I decided to follow the “road not taken,” forgoing the Autobahn and speeds which make me dizzy in favor of wending our way through some of the dozens of little hamlets dotting the northern German landscape. (I learned K hasn’t met a church steeple he doesn’t want to know better.) It was a beautiful early spring day and we feasted our eyes on the golden fields of canola and bright green ones of budding crops. Yet again I want to express my gratitude for this chapter of my life and for the wonderful people I get to share it with. Stay tuned for the next adventure.

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Plucky Bydgoszcz

So now I’m clueing you into my new travel dilemma. (And aren’t I the lucky one to have this at the top of my list?) I’m looking to find and explore cities in Europe that 1.) are not tourist Disneylands filled with cheap international chain stores and hordes of tourists carrying selfie sticks and eating in restaurants with English menus or 2.) zombie towns that have been painstaking restored but which haven’t found their new life yet and sit in ornate and reconstituted splendor with only the cats for company. No, I want to find cities, real places, small and large, who are still “themselves,” still places where real people live and work and hang out in the town center and the language is still theirs and they are holding on to their souls and THEN they invite the tourists to come and share the place with them. Vilnius falls into this category, or at least it did when I visited in 2015, and now I’ve decided to Go East and see how Poland is managing this conundrum.

I bumped into the idea of going to Bydgoszcz (pronounced, as far as I can hear and tell as “BID-de-goshcht) by reading a teachers’ forum on, a great place to hear folks talk about places small and large, known and remote around the world. Bydgoszcz came up as a place where someone could accept a nine-month contract and not go quietly insane in a matter of weeks from teaching in an isolated little burg. I did a quick Wiki check and learned that it had a university and a Philharmonic, that it had recently overhauled its small museum complex, and that it had a rich and diverse architectural heritage. That, and the train and hotel being cheap, was basically all it took, and away I went.

Once off the train, I made my way to my crib for the weekend, a lovely Belle Epoque structure near the center of town originally built in 1887. The new owners have tenderly restored the property in just a slightly over-the-top style, but my room was cozy, the restaurant delicious and under-priced, and the staff welcoming and more than helpful:

Because of its location in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship, Bydgoszcz has a complicated history. Kuyavia is a historic area in Poland with a history dating back millenia and including a famous history of cheese. Pomerania is the area to the north of Kuyavia and includes Gdansk and Szczecin, about which I wrote in December. I only knew it as a place that named a dog, but I have subsequently learned that both areas have gone back and forth, back and forth, between Poland (when it was functioning) and Prussia/Germany (when it wasn’t), resulting in a marvelous Slavic/Germanic mix that permeates a number of places in the region. The “hero” of Bydgoszcz is Kasimir the Great who granted Bydgoszcz civic rights in 1346 and set it on the road to whatever fame and fortune it has been able to achieve:

The next significant events in Bydgoszcz were “the Swedish deluges” in the 1620s and 1650s when the city was basically blown to bits by the retreating Swedes during the Polish-Swedish Wars (marble columns were recently found in the river during a drought-ish summer) and then the devastating effects of the plague. (Enough to keep everyone home with Netflix and MREs, IMHO.) But Bydgoszcz picked itself up and moved on.  A century or so later it was acquired by Prussia and renamed “Bromberg.” The pragmatic Prussians, understanding Bydgoszcz’s strategic location in terms of transportation of goods through the region, initiated a series of canals connecting the rivers surrounding the city and making it an immediate hub for commerce. Here’s a shot of the medieval city in bronze:

The main section of the “new” city extends north from the island seen above – the castle to the right was destroyed by the Swedes and has basically stayed destroyed ever since.

So under Prussian “inspiration,” Bydgoszcz became a forward way-station for the development and transport of goods and services through the region, known particularly for its granaries, one of which is in the process of becoming a whole exhibit itself on the history of water and waterworks in the region. Trying to get into the aquatic spirit of it all, I was completely charmed by a local fisherman and his avian assistant. (The quality of the photo is a bit grainy because I took it at a distance and had to enlarge:)

But what completely won my heart was the set of amazing small museums that Bydgoszcz has developed recently – a stunning set of historical “gems” that help visitors understand this city’s history and contributions to the region. In the small but incredibly well developed archeological museum on Mill Island, one can learn about centuries of history here, including the fascinating (for me) fact that during the early middle ages, people hung bones just inside the door to ensure the inhabitants’ well-being. Here’s a typical home of the time and place:

Nearby is a coin museum (I didn’t have time to visit) and a beautiful house filled with art in commemoration of the artist Leon Wyczolkowski. Now, I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but *wow,* is he great. Google him. Just do it. Here’s an arty portrayal from one of the rooms of the exhibition:

And nearby here was one of the most wonderful modern art museums I have ever seen (oh, and did I mention these places all cost about 1.00 USD each, less if you are old like me?) I would say the downside of this particular place was that….in an incredibly uncomfortably remnant of the old Commie times, a bored old man accompanies you through the museum, unlocking doors, turning lights on and off, and basically making you feel like a nuisance and sending the message that you better be quick about it. Amid a number of masterpieces I have never seen before (but thankfully I bought the book), I saw this tribute to our own Martin Luther King. Wasn’t expecting that:

I’m sorry that since I wasn’t supposed to take pictures I didn’t manage to capture the artist. But it was lovely to see MLK here, and fascinating to learn that he had inspired someone in the neighborhood.

And finally, in the spirit of museum trolling, I discovered….the Museum of Dirt and Soap! Now this venue truly captured my heart because my great-grandfather, a German immigrant to Milwaukee from Ulm, Germany, was a soap manufacturer of some note. It’s a dirty job, soap, actually, lye and ash in the old days, and this little museum offered a rather amazing hour tour to educate visitors on the whole problem of dirt and its removal throughout much of recorded history. They start you off, cleverly enough, with a quick hands-on soap-making lesson, the product of which is proudly presented to you on your departure from the premises. Here are my two fellow tourees engaged in the process:

A little further on, the same brave lass volunteered to demonstrate washing techniques under the watchful eye of our enthusiastic guide:

As I headed to the train station for my ride back, I walked through the in-process re-furbishing of the town square and over the recently renovated pedestrian bridge, connecting the old town center with the rest of the city. Holding his own across the waterway was this intriguing acrobat:

…and across the bridge from the water walker, was an exhibit reminding one and all of where Bydgoszcz stood in the fight for Polish independence:

An inspiring shot of Lech Walesa speaking to what looks like the entire population of the city, and now a photo from 1981 that continues to inform the city and its visitors.

I dipped into the Basilica on my last stop – I was fascinated to learn it was built on the model of the Pantheon in Rome, that complicated and compelling homage to Roman pagan civilization and later the power of the Christian Church. But what I found most endearing of all is that the Basilica, in an effort to give everyone something to take away, offered a “fortune cookie” bowl of scripture lessons to visitors young and old:

Of course I took one! My scripture fortune was Ephesians 5:19, which reads, more or less, in the King James version:

“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

And I’ll take that to the good. Time to join a choir, me thinks.

So ends my most recent trip to Poland; stay tuned for Katowice, coming up soon.

Posted in Poland, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments