The brave new world of Zoom…

As some of you know, I often spend a good chunk of my summer surrounded by rice paddies at the International University of Japan in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture. There I have been privileged to work with a wonderful team of fellow visiting faculty and a most diverse and enjoyable group of students from all over Asia, many sponsored by the International Monetary Fund in preparation for their master’s programs. The quad and main classroom buildings at IUJ looks like this in the height of the very hot and very humid Japanese summer:

While appearing tad austere, the campus actually has provided the palette for some intense learning experiences balanced with all manner of fun and merriment, some a bit rowdy, to be honest. But it is always a bright bold adventure.

This year I had planned to take the summer off and enjoy life and warm breezes from my balcony in Berlin. But such was not to be the case. In early June I received a frantic SOS from the IUJ program administration requesting my assistance to deliver our four-week intensive writing program…remotely….for the very first time and with very very little time to prepare. After some serious soul-searching – I have *really been trying to avoid this type of activity* – I agreed to join the “pioneer caravan.”

But before we laid eyes on our students, oh my what a scramble. First of all, the personnel involved….were global. I am, of course, in Berlin. My teaching colleagues A and B are in the US – California and Kansas, respectively. Our boss T was in Japan, and the students were physically located anywhere from Kazakhstan to Indonesia and many points in between. For the four members of the teaching team and boss to actually meet at the same time, we had to ask A to drink coffee with us at 8:00 am, B to have her second cup with us at 10:00 am, me to join with my signature G&T at 5:00 pm….and the boss T to chime in at midnight. Quite the temporal circus.

Here’s the intrepid Team ABC in one of our many lesson planning meetings:

Secondly, just to make things work and to deliver as much of the program as humanly possible, we were allowed to acquire a variety of technical equipment (much of which I did not end up using), but which had to be ordered through a laborious and multilevel multi-organizational approval process involving, shall we say, a lot of chefs:

And, third, naturally, when all this equipment met up with the required range of different computer systems, teaching software, Zoom connections, program materials, administrative spreadsheets, and whatever else, the technical and technological interconnectively challenges were seemingly endless. Here is the most patient IUJ tech support guru, for whom all the chocolate in the world is not enough, on one her of several emergency visits with me:

Here’s what my “classroom” (aka kitchen table) actually looked like for about five weeks:

Note the outdated map taped to the wall in an effort to look vaguely school-like. The cat normally occupied the little slot beside the computer shelf – you’ll see this later.

And here’s what we were trying to accomplish in four weeks, four days a week (the fifth day was tutorials) and three hours a day:

In addition to Zoom and email, we also used portions of the Google Suite called “Drive” for the faculty, (basically an online library space where we could upload and edit documents and materials) before sharing them with the students in  “Classroom.” Here’s what my students saw in preparation for the first week in our classroom:

Once I got the hang of it – the method of posting is rather clunky – the interface itself is pretty cool. Students can access the materials either online or print them out, and *there’s no way the dog can eat your homework.* The contemporary version of that excuse is that the internet is down, so same result in the end, I guess.

Because of the time differences and the fact that the university administration wanted all the classes to run at the same time IN JAPAN, I was initially asked to teach from 5:00 am to 8:00 am. If you know me at all well, you know this is tantamount to bamboo shoots under my fingernails while sitting on sharpened thumbtacks. After my heart started pumping again, I was able to take comfort in the RULE of German quiet hours which in my building translates to being able to make noise only starting at 7:00 am. So I got a reprieve, at least this year, and 7:00 am to 10:00 am were my teaching hours. Ahem.

Computer, cat, and coffee…good morning class…

Once I got over the initial shock of how to manage ten screens, admit people, create breakout groups, share screens, and use chat, it actually started to feel almost normal. Almost. Here’s a shot of the chat window, where your students can keep you honest:

This is a really handy feature where you can send a message to the whole group OR just to one individual person. Budi, listed above, lives in Indonesia near a mosque. The call to prayer was a regular feature of our classroom.

And finally, here’s my class – the brave and patient group of stellar individuals who had to stifle their expectations of a summer in Japan and substitute several months of sitting in their bedrooms for multiple hours a day interacting with faculty who were themselves just learning how to manage this medium. It’s been a year of massive adjustments, to be sure, and IMHO, this group managed it as well or better than most.

This lovely group of folks hails, listing top left to bottom right, from Myanmar, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mongolia (again), Bangladesh (again) and Kyrgyzstan. They certainly brought me their best game and I did my very best to give them the same in return. And truth be told, I think I am the better teacher for it. Live long and prosper, y’all.

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A sliver of Stralsund

This is the final post covering my lovely little mini-holiday last month in northern Germany, written in a bit of a rush today because I am preparing to teach my first-ever online course over Zoom. I know this is old old news for much of the world, since you grizzled veterans have been doing this since March, but I have been scrupulously avoiding this type of activity and now it is upon me full-bore, so I will have to give up my adventuring for a couple months or so and throw myself into learning a bunch of crazy stuff on a bunch of new machinery and then deliver it for three hours a day to students in four different time zones. Wish me luck; I’ll need it.

But before I turn my attention to, here’s a last look at our northern excursion. We had stopped for lunch in Rostock, site of the fountain at the end of the post below, and took a brief turn around the city center to walk off the excellent cuisine at Blauer Edsel, the Blue Donkey. Just off one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares, we stumbled across a quiet courtyard with some of the inhabitants enjoying the perfect summer weather. I was enchanted by this living Impressionist painting of peace and serenity:

Back on the road, on our way to Stralsund, my dear spouse pulled a dramatic U-turn and blew dust up a country road to show me something he knew I had always wanted to see – a stork on its nest. Storks to us in the US are rare sightings and their personal habits – mated for life, extraordinary migration patterns returning always to the same locale – are the stuff of legend. Blog, meet my closest stork encounter to date:

The height and complexity of the nest suggests a habitation of long duration and a tolerant human population that never burns a fire too brightly….

I wanted to see Stralsund because it is, together with Wismar 150 km/93 miles away, a World Heritage site due to their amazing architecture and shared history. But in addition, Stralsund has been under an astonishing number of different flags and sports, among other things, the most Swedish tourists of any site in Germany because of its long association with that country.

Take a deep breath…Stralsund was initially established by West Slavic tribes in the region but politically was initially Danish. In 1293 Stralsund became a member of the Hanseatic League, and although the nearby island of Rügen fell under control of Pomerania in the 14th century, Stralsund maintained its independence. In 1630, as a result of the Thirty Years War, Stralsund, along with Stettin (now a Polish city) fell under Swedish control and stayed there for two hundred years until 1809-1815 when it was briefly French, thanks to the long arm of Napoleon. It became part of Prussian Pomerania after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Stralsund was heavily damaged by the Americans in World War II and fell under the control of East Germany following the war. Whew! Currently home to nearly 60,000 souls, the city has in addition to an active tourism scene, commercial activity in fishing, shipyards, and increasingly, high tech.

Traveling in the age of corona has new wrinkles, as you might imagine, and one of them is that some locations and venues have new regulations about durations of stay. We had hoped to make a return trip to Aeroe on this trip, the lovely little Danish island where we married three years go, but the public-health-prudent Danes currently require proof of six nights of hotel stays before one is admitted to the country (unless one has Schleswig-Holstein license plates, which means next time we borrow the in-law’s car…). Many hotels also require stays of more than one night, so our hotel options were oddly limited on this trip, even though the overall number of tourists was considerably down. As a result, that evening we stayed at a hotel outside the old city in Stralsund, which gave us a nice walk each way to the main attractions. In one city park, we saw the following monument:

This is a memorial to the man who tended this city park for a good chunk of his gardening career. It reads along the lines of “In commemoration of the faithful caretaking of Ernst Billich.” Such a lovely gesture; one I have never seen before.

Not far away, another thoughtful concept. The picture below is of an institutionalized ride-sharing site “Mitfahrbank”, where people select and advertise the name of the village to which they want to travel – Prohn is the current objective, but you can see a map below the sign with other alternatives in the area – and then sit on the nearby benches to wait until someone stops by and gives them a lift. I’ve never seen anything quite so organized, and I love the idea:

Once inside the beautiful old city, the absolute “must see” is the Saint Nicholas Church, the oldest of the three main churches in town and built as a council church, to balance, as it were, the sacred as well as the mercantile, legal, and diplomatic functions of the city. The original founding of the church was in 1234; it was rebuilt as a basilica from 1270-1350; and the towers were finally finished a hundred years or so after that. It is huge huge huge, and it had, in its heyday, 56 altars. Yup. You read that right. 56, most dedicated by guilds and more to the glory of secular egos than to any heavenly figures. me thinks.

It was impossible to take a picture to show much of anything because of the scale of the building and all the renovations, so here are just a couple details. The first is a somber and sobering memorial to the victims of the First and Second World Wars:

As I usually do, I lit a candle so that the Powers that Be know I’m still kicking. But this simple and modern stage touched me deeply; I lingered a while.

At the other end of the great hall, we spied this curious object:

Wiki tells us “behind the high altar is (a model of ) the astronomical clock, which was built in 1394 by Nikolaus Lilienfeld. The clock is part of a whole series of monumental clocks, which were installed since the 14th century in churches in different cities of the Hanseatic League It has a wheel train with a mechanical escapement. In addition to day and night times, the positions of the sun, moon, and fixed stars can also be read off the clock. It is the oldest almost completely preserved astronomical clock in the Baltic region and also the oldest mechanical clock in the world that still contains its original wheels.” Don’t give up on, but I still think this is pretty damn cool, particularly the 1394 part.

Next door to the church was the Rathaus, the city hall. Hanging on the wall in the stone arcade, filled with interesting little shops, was the following memorial:

In rough paraphrase, “It’s possible without bloodshed. The time of oppression is past.” ‘On the 30th of October, 1989, thousands of Stralsunders demanded the establishment of a group for social dialogue. Between the 7th of November 1989 and the 2nd of May 1990,” The Stralsund 20″ worked to define the peaceful revolution and the development of a democratic community in Stralsund.’ Lovely to have that permanent reminder for all to see.

As always, history, culture, and politics combine to create a tremendous thirst for….learning….and of course the local beer. T and succumbed to the warmth, the weather, and the closing of all the establishments promptly at 6:00 pm by repairing to a cozy table on the town square, where we joined the fortunate few able to be in this place at this time, free for a brief celestial moment from the cares of the world (and our masks). Prost!

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A Whisper of Wismar

Trigger alert: This post, and perhaps the next, will feature an ungodly amount of red brick. I can’t help it, truly I can’t. Red brick was the preferred building material for much of northern Europe for a very long time because a.) it is relatively easy to produce and, more importantly, b.) it protects against fire. But you might find this post a bit pictorially repetitive and find yourself longing for green spaces. I am sorry. I will try to be more chromatically diverse in the future. Feel free to move right along if this doesn’t interest you.

After the last location, Schleswig, T and I continued to head due east. Once past Lübeck, we entered a new German state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, formerly one of the four states that made up East Germany. This was an area that I have long been interested to explore for its complicated historical, political, and cultural threads. Known locally as either MV or MeckPomm, the region initially saw its first inhabitants about 10,000 BC, with the original Germanic peoples leaving at some date and Western Slavs moving in around the 6th century AD. Vikings populated much of the coastal areas, known by some as the Baltic Sea and for the Germans as the OstSee, for centuries before the region was handed over to the Holy Roman Empire in the 1180s. Later the Swedes held sway for a goodly long time. It’s very sparsely populated state overall, but its beautiful old cities and lovely rolling countryside (along with its coastline) attract a lot of tourists, both domestic and international, in non-Covid times.

Our first stop was Wismar, and I will have to to come clean and say that I was immediately captivated. But for this post I will have to start yet again with a Famous Unknown:

Frege? Any guesses?  No, me neither.

“Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, 8 November 1848 – 26 July 1925) was a German philosopher, logician, and mathematician. He worked as a mathematics professor at the University of Jena, and is understood by many to be the father of analytic philosophy, concentrating on the philosophy of language, logic, and mathematics. Though he was largely ignored during his lifetime, …. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and others introduced his work to later generations of philosophers….Frege was described by his students as a highly introverted person, seldom entering into dialogues with others and mostly facing the blackboard while lecturing. He was, however, known to occasionally show wit and even bitter sarcasm during his classes.”

Well, I personally would have quickly withered and died in such an academic environment. Good thing German students of the day were composed of sterner stuff. But I’m happy to have met him in this form, particularly since his bronze bust was unable to reduce me to analytical and emotional dust.

Wismar, Frege’s hometown, was a bit more accessible for me. Founded in the 13th century and ruled mostly by Swedes during its history, the city is part of the fabled Hanseatic chain of cities that was responsible for so much wealth creation during its five-hundred-year history. The old towns of both Wismar and Stralsund are together a World Heritage site, and it’s no wonder. Here’s a map of Wismar’s Altstadt:

As with many of the wealthier cities in the region, Wismar is marked by its astonishing number of big churches and cathedrals. Apparently this was a way that the local merchants demonstrated their spiritual, as well as their commercial, prowess. At my insistence, T and I headed up to the viewing station of the St.-Georgen-Kirche, I believe the center building in the map above. The view that balmy June day was spectacular:

….but what was equally interesting to me was the church’s interior, a real contrast to many such edifices. Remember, the East Germans were, shall we say, not particularly religious, and as a result, the interiors of many of the amazing Gothic structures…..were stripped of their theological frippery and can now be seen in a different light – the bones, as it were, of an ancient treasure. Here’s T reading up on the history of the building:

The churchwas damaged during the Second World War but has been restored to this state. To me, this is really spectacular and showcases the astonishing architectural and structural abilities of the late Middle Ages’ craftsmen.

Nearby are the ruins of the of the St. Marien church, the location of the Frege bust. In a way, this is even more heart-rending – the church was damaged during WWII, but then political interests took the destruction yet another step:

“For political reasons.” “…processed into stone chippings.” Sigh. In the memorial center, there’s a remnant of one of the remaining frescos:

A short distance away, yet another Grand Dame is reflected in a city canal:

….and nearby is the city museum that we didn’t have time to visit (but I will return to, asap, pinky finger promise, you have been warned…):

….in front of which is, what I am quickly learning, is a major Good Luck Charm in Germany….

Wismar really REALLY rang my chimes. You can expect a much expanded story sometime in the not-too-distant future. The city, barely 25,000 souls, has managed to keep its historic core, encouraged and sustained a variety of interesting and unique shops, and has preserved a sense of history well intact. I’m told rainy winters are brutal here, but if I have one more move in my future, it might well be to this neck of the woods.

We left Wismar wistfully, but on the way to Stralsund, enjoyed a lovely lunch in Rostock. There we were treated to the sight of children at play in the center city fountain, a sight to melt the heart of even the most curmudgeonly of old ladies:

Which leads me to the ancient trope, hope springs eternal. Bis gleich. Until soon.

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A slice of Schleswig and a hint of Haithabu

As I mentioned in a previous post, T and I were moving pretty fast this trip, and I must confess that part of my eagerness to tell these stories is to give me a chance to reflect a bit more on the places we went through at such a blistering pace. Today I’ll share a bit about the modern city of Schleswig and the ancient city of Haithabu (Haddeby) nearby. But first, do you know this guy?

No, me neither. I saw this bust in the little village of Garding on the west side of the country, where we stopped briefly for T to meet with a colleague. The Greek Key motif below the bust suggested something of a classical or academic bent, so I looked him up.

Yowza! Wiki tells us “Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (30 November 1817 – 1 November 1903) was a German classical scholar, historian, jurist, journalist, politician, and archeologist. He was one of the greatest classicists of the 19th century. His work regarding Roman history is still of fundamental importance for contemporary research. He received the Noble Prize for Literature in 1902 for being “the greatest living master of the art of historical writing, with special reference to his monumental work, “A History of Rome,” after having been nominated by 18 members of the Prussian Academy of Scientists.He was also a prominent German politician, as a member of the Prussian and German parliaments. His works on Roman law and on the law of obligations had a significant impact on the German civil code.”

Okay, then. Wow. Even a tiny town of 2700 souls can turn out a world-class scholar and Nobel Prize winner. His younger brother, no surprise, was a writer and the director of the local high school. Such accomplishment, and yet to have never heard his name. There is a actually Mommsenstrasse in Berlin; I will be more thoughtful next time I stroll down it.

I normally don’t take pictures of food and am ungenerously quite dismissive of those who do. Buuuut, we had dinner in Schleswig at an unprepossessing little cafe…that simply blew my socks off. Food, I must say, is one of the very few disappointments in Berlin; at my price point, it’s decent but not very interesting. But for an extremely reasonably priced meal, this was a show-stopper – grilled shrimp and potatoes, a glorious veggie salad, and what you can just barely see at the top of the place, a delicious chickpea/grainy/curry thing that was amazing. Oh, and an excellent local beer that we’d never heard of. *This is the reason you go off the beaten path.* Cheers, Patio!

Well, we’re multiple paragraphs in and you haven’t gotten the history lesson yet. Schleswig is the follow-on community to Haithabu; after the latter was destroyed around 1066, Schleswig grew as a local trading center in the Danish kingdom. The dukes of Gottorf made their home there, and their lovely castle, initially built in 1161, is still here for the viewing (we missed it). Schleswig, now a town just over 25,000, was Danish until the Second Schleswig War in 1861, when it became Prussian, now German, of course.

The city skyline is dominated by St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its backstory is amazing: “In 1134, the Danish King Niels’ headless body was laid out in St. Peter’s Cathedral after it was pulled from the Schlei in the nets of local fishermen. The monks who attended the corpse heard strange noises and thought that the spirit of King Niels was wandering about in the church. As a result, the king’s body was taken to Gottorp and stuffed into a boggy grave. Someone hammered a stake through Niels’ chest to keep him there. Legend has it that King Niels’ still haunts the cathedral, and that he still hunts across the moors and forest of Schleswig with his hounds.”

Clearly the cathedral was, of course, under reconstruction when we strolled by, no ghost, no hounds, thankfully. But that history might explain the odd sense of sadness that permeated the town, even on this most glorious day of summer weather and into a long gloaming evening. We enjoyed exploring the city, but wondered to ourselves…where the heck the local inhabitants were. A local plaza asked more questions than it answered:

Of course, the EU has just opened some of its borders for tourists, but one might think more locals might be inspired to enjoy a balmy evening in the square.

The next day, we headed across the bay to Haithabu (Danish: Haddeby), a destination that I have longed to visit for quite some time. If any of you have read or watched “The Last Kingdom” series (BH, I know you have), Haithabu is frequently mentioned there, the big Danish trading site where all the toothsome women and young children captured in battle are sold into slavery for transport to points south. Just for your point of reference, here’s a map showing its location:

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Haithabu “is the most important archaeological site in Schleswig-Holstein. Around 965, chronicler Ibrahim ibn Ahmed At-Tartûschi, an Arab from Cordoba in Spain, visited Hedeby and described it as, “a very large city at the very end of the world’s ocean….Hedeby was the second largest Nordic town during the Viking Age.” Active between the 8th and 11th centuries, the city was an early Christian center and a wicked important trading town. It was ultimately destroyed by two forces – the Norwegians in 1050 and then the Western Slavs in 1066. The site was rediscovered about 1900 and early excavations began then; the adjoining museum opened in 1985.

We didn’t have time for the museum this trip (the time theme again), but we did take a beautiful stroll to see the reconstructed houses. On our path there, I noticed this tree with the most amazing root system I have ever seen:

…and soon we found ourselves on top of the massive dike works that had originally surrounded the city. First here’s a view of what is visible today – you can just see the tops of the houses in the center midground:

…aaaanddd here’s what was there, during the height of its three centuries of influence:

Hard to imagine, but of course the world is filled with incredible Places That Were.

Al-Tartushi continued,

…The inhabitants worship Sirius, except for a minority of Christians who have a church of their own there…. He who slaughters a sacrificial animal puts up poles at the door to his courtyard and impales the animal on them, be it a piece of cattle, a ram, billy goat or a pig so that his neighbours will be aware that he is making a sacrifice in honour of his god. The town is poor in goods and riches. People eat mainly fish which exist in abundance. Babies are thrown into the sea for reasons of economy. The right to divorce belongs to the women…. Artificial eye make-up is another peculiarity; when they wear it their beauty never disappears, indeed it is enhanced in both men and women. Further: Never did I hear singing fouler than that of these people, it is a rumbling emanating from their throats, similar to that of a dog but even more bestial.”

Foul singing aside, the houses themselves were as basic and utilitarian you might imagine, and my photos of them are a bit dull, hence the omission. Basically they are long houses with cooking and heating elements at each end and a large room in the middle with raised beds covered in fur. But here’s a shot of a contemporary tool workshop, and as always it gives one pause to realize and remember that real people just like you and me lived their whole lives for hundreds of year on this material level.

Nearby there was a truly amazing “gift shop,” run by a family who *actually made* the items strictly according to the materials available and based on models from the museum. The family itself, a charming group of husband, wife, and grown son, dressed in appropriate 10th century garb and even offered refreshments that were available in the era. I bought a charming little silver Viking ax pendant – pagan pride at its best.

As we hastened to the car, we passed a delightful final scene, the preparation for outside church services on that Sunday in the time of Corona. This site is a memorial to one of the bishops of the region, a man who must have labored mightily against the rather bloody Sirius worshipers. Chairs were being placed with proper social distancing and there was a disinfectant and other tools of the trade along with the order of service and a humble wooden cross.

To say I’m itching to return is of course an understatement. But don’t dispair – the next stops are Wismar and Stralsund. So happy to have you along for the journey!



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Lucky Little Glückstadt

In a world still struggling to come to terms with a whole host of “new normals,” I feel extremely privileged to live in a country that has the virus mostly under control. In celebration of that fact, T and I (reunited after nearly four months apart) planned a long weekend across the top of Germany to meet up with a variety of friends, family, business associates, and also to just take a peek at places we might want to visit at greater length in the future. Germans, famously international in their travels, have been looking closer to home for outings this season, and in that spirit, the next few blogs will focus in on the surprising and beautiful features we found traveling from Hamburg in the west to Greifswald in the east near the Polish border.

Our first stop was Glückstadt (“Luck City”) for a family reunion with T’s brother and his family, including our delightful niece J who is about to make us grand-uncle and aunt. This family was the intrepid trio that witnessed our wedding three years ago; it’s a happy event to finally meet them on their home turf. Glückstadt, now a quiet little burg of 11,000 souls or so’ was initially founded on March 22, 1617 by Christian the IV of Denmark, then the Duke of Holstein as well, as evidence by this attractive (?) memorial.

Chris IV was quite a guy and worth a quick read if you are so inclined. He held the Danish throne for nearly 60 years, a record that still stands. He had imperial ambitions and was eager to consolidate power in Scandinavia and the Prussian/Baltic region. At the time he founded Glückstadt, the King/Duke promised the inhabitants a heady combination of tax exemption and freedom of religion; as a result the town quickly became a major trading center and serious competitor to Hamburg, some 30 miles (45 km) to the southwest. This seems almost laughable today – Hamburg has nearly two million inhabitants – but at the time Glückstadt was a significant economic and political force to be reckoned with for decades if not centuries and actually became the capital of Holstein in the late 1800s.

One way to understand the pride and intention of the city founders is to look at a map of the town center:

Unlike loads of villages in the area and across Germany, where little houses meander along the road with a church here or there, this town was clearly designed and executed to take advantage and command of its setting on the River Elbe and to signal a kind of civic and political superiority to its neighbors. Below is a shot taken in the city center, or the Glückstadt Marktplatz, as it’s labeled above:

This imposing structure, punching a good deal over its weight for a standard village, is the Rathaus or city hall, complete with the obligatory Keller. It stands immediately next door to the Christian IV on the left in this photo, which is currently an inn and restaurant. If I were to turn around at this moment, behind me is the village church – I couldn’t get a good shot of the whole building, but here’s the tower with Christian’s logo – an anchor. This is, not surprisingly, the oldest building in town.

Sadly, it was too early in the morning to actually enter the church, and indeed it still may be closed. But when I looked at the church doors, I saw something very curious and went closer to investigate:

Pinned to the door is a sign that reads “Good words for bad times. Please take one with you. Consolation, reflection, serenity, peace, confidence, and hope.” Attached by a string are individual rolled notes, probably containing some comforting words and perhaps a piece of Scripture (I refrained from taking one.) I almost cried, though. What a charming gesture from a building that had to remain closed for so long but from a pastoral team that was clearly aware of what the members might be experiencing..

Nearby was an information sign that showed me something completely new. As a bit of background, I am originally a Californian by birth and education and learned very early about the trail forged by the Spanish padre Father Junipero Serra and his colleagues who planted a series of mission churches roughly a walking day apart all the way up the California coast in the 18th century. In these days of BLM and removing symbols of cultural oppression, it’s a bit uncomfortable to reflect on how many local lives were most probably lost as a result of this cultural and religious “invasive species,” but in my day those ardent friars were proclaimed as light unto the unsaved. In a similar but perhaps less epidemiologically destruction fashion, the sign below illustrates the “Mönchsweg,” or Pilgrim’s Path, a 340 km (211 miles) trail that had been followed by the monks who brought Christianity to the region. Now a bike trail, this route leads from near the west coast of Schleswig Holstein across to the east coast on the Ostsee, giving the modern “pedaling pilgrim” a chance to see small byways, villages, old churches, and nature reserves that have changed little, perhaps, since they were seen or established in the Middle Ages.

Sadly time was running short so T and I took a final quick stroll around the rest of the town before we had to leave for our next destination. Along the canal that runs to the River Elbe, we saw these charming houses with hollyhocks:

What struck me throughout this visit – and you will see it extend into the next stop – is the strong Danish connection. This town – and all of Germany from Hamburg up to the current Danish border – WAS Denmark until 1864. The political borders we see today are merely the result of recent wars and conveniences….but as I moved through the weekend, I saw and felt the fingerprints of many other countries and cultures in this stretch of modern-day Germany, often overlooked by international travelers.

As not to end on a sober note, heading out of town on our way to Schleswig, we saw this charming front “nameplate” of a local family doctor’s medical practice…and if this doesn’t calm your medical jitters, nothing will…

On that note, it’s time to mooooove along now…the next installment is coming soon.

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Animated suspension…..

Many years ago on my very first trip to Europe (cheap Iceland Air flight, cheap Eurail pass, cheap youth hostel card, cheap Toblerone), at some point I checked into a charming hostel in Grindelwald, a breathtakingly beautiful village high in the Swiss Alps known for many things including…erratic autumn weather. The day I arrived, it was a warm sunny fall afternoon in mid-October. When I awoke for breakfast the next morning….we were completely snowed in, locked down, unable to move. We stayed this way for three or four or five (I don’t rightly remember) days until the local inhabitants, hardy and practical folks used to this kind of thing, finally plowed a path to the train station and we could all finally depart.

But during those long liminal days of our confinement, the first time in my life that nature had imposed Herself implacably and inflexibly on my own individual and personal schedule, time.stood.still. This was, of course, decades and centuries before cell phones, computers, or any kind of mobile technology. I’m not even sure the electricity was working particularly well at that point, to be honest. All I remember was an extremely motley group of youngish folks sprawled around a giant fireplace in a typically decorated cozy Alpine space, trying to make it through….the seemingly endless void. The best part of the lock-down was listening to a pair of theater students from the University of Akron in Ohio  as they acted out their favorite scenes from “The Wizard of Oz,” a production of which they had completed the spring before their year abroad began. “I’ll get you, my pretty……and your little DAWG too…..EH he he he he he he he….EH he he he he he he…..”

Well, you know where this is going. At the moment we’re all in the youth hostel together during and after the blizzard and we all have no frick-frackin’ idea when there’s going to be a path to the train station or when exactly a train might depart to….anywhere. This time around, though, we’re particularly lucky that, thanks to social media, there have been dozens of talented people around the world stepping up to offer us their own versions of The Wizard of Oz. Those of us fortunate enough to have a home, sufficient funds, and a good internet connection have nothing much more to complain about than your basic tedium and some extra pounds. (Of course I am more than aware that this is a very different story for others, and for them I weep and pray.)

Berlin, my adopted city, has stepped up to this challenge magnificently. There has been a lot of clear communication, straightforward guidance on options for health concerns, direct messaging about what to do and not to do, and, thankfully, a rational understanding that people need to get out and about, albeit with safe distancing and all that jazz. I have been using my daily exercise walk to deepen my understanding of my Bezirk (district) of Charlottenburg. Because I am hesitant to spend a lot of time on the u-Bahn (still running, amazingly), I have been walking, walking, walking, and walking but mostly in this smaller space of my immediate neighborhood.

I plan to do a separate blog on the palace located in Charlottenburg (das Schloss Charlottenburg, a fascinating story), but for today let me just note that it anchors the area – and my walks – and was the inspiration for the development of a separate village apart from Berlin back in the day. You have seen it as a backdrop to my posts on the Christmas markets, but here’s a frontal view from this afternoon SANS the romance of fancy night lighting and a huge seasonal festival:

It’s an odd building….very very long and very very thin; I’ll cover it later in greater detail. But it’s a lovely landmark all the same and I doff my hat to her every time I pass.

Today I was struck by most curious marker across the street from the palace – the translation of the words carved it are “1 Mile from Berlin,” an early traffic marker, perhaps? So curious. (Did they have miles back then? When did kilometers show up? Whatev.) But just look at the coal-darkened sections of the pillar – such a contrast to the significantly cleaner air we are breathing these days. This was a dirty town, but then, they were all pretty dirty towns. Maybe we can do better, moving forward.

Moving further down the Strasse, I am just charmed by how the Germans (or perhaps it’s the Berliners) manage to focus a deeper lens on almost every experience. If you’ve seen my Facebook post about the yellow posters, here’s another one. This one reads “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” I just (heart) that, but of course it keeps the main message in focus – STAYATHOME:

But, of course, nothing in Berlin can stay too serious for too long. Around the corner, in the window of a local wine shop, I spied this little sweetheart. The translation reads “So I just got a mouth guard:”

Ba da BOOM!

Moving away from the palace and back towards my humble abode, I am fortunate to be able to walk a lovely foot and bike path along the Spree, one of the several rivers that surrounds and supports the city. This photo was taken on the night of the huge pink moon this past week; you don’t see the moon itself in this shot, but the dusk light was incredible:

As you can see from above, the Berliners in my part of town have been pretty fair distancers. I hear it’s different in some of the other neighborhoods, but I’ve been astonished at the level of conscientious discipline on display for the last month or so. But then, as I have said a few times, Berliners got grit. This isn’t the first time things have gotten gnarly around here, and I think there’s almost an unconscious recognition that you can get through almost anything if you put your mind to it. And, again, for many of us, not all, it’s just a matter of trying to manage our time in a way that doesn’t hurt ourselves or others and might even result in some helpful reflection.

Oh, and then there’s cats and naps. Another reason for Gratitude and Catitude. Here’s a shot of Leila helping me spend a few lazy hours in the afternoon in the prone position. Read another chapter, My Human, before you FEEEED me….

Dear ones, we didn’t expect this, we didn’t want this, and we don’t have the slightest clue how life moves forward from this. Perhaps as we are forced into a lifestyle that more resembles the 17th century than the 21st, we will find the mental and spiritual space to envision a world that is qualitatively different and better than the one we left. Maybe there is room for new conceptions of the environment, of justice and security, of how we live our lives on a day-to-day basic. I can only hope. We can only hope. And in the meantime, we can click the heels of our ruby red slippers together three times and recite, “There’s no place like home….there’s no place like home….” Fingers crossed for us all.




Posted in Berlin | 3 Comments

Too much or too little

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

But, of course, not so fast this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nativity scenes for Brad and Carol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best to you both, and much love.

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Action conquers fear…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Binge-walking the Christmas Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Berlin, Germany | Tagged | 2 Comments