Görlitz, the Sleeping Beauty of Silesia

Last week was an interesting confluence of the spring equinox and a full “Worm” moon, so named because of the thawing earth bringing the reappearance of earthworms and hence the robins. Well, it certainly thawed me out and put me in mind of a ramble. And since, apropos of my last blog posting, I wanted to find a place to explore that hadn’t become the Disneyland consumer mall version of its former civic self, I figured I would have more luck sniffing around in the municipalities of the old East Germany. A “Top Ten Prettiest Cities” list had drawn my attention to Görlitz, located just at the Polish border in the southeastern corner of Germany.  Since trains were frequent and cheap to that destination, off I set, expecting an easy day trip and home for supper.

But the mysteries started before I even reached Cottbus, the half-way and train transfer point of my journey. Around there I began seeing town names with odd translations, seemingly Slavic, but nowhere never the Polish border. Consider this example:

“Odd,” sez I. Hmmm. Turns out….the region between Berlin and Görlitz, roughly 220 kilometers or 132 miles is, in addition to being the biosphere known as the Spreewald, is also the ancient region of Lusatia (Lausitz in German, Łužica in one of the local dialects), the home territory of a western Slavic tribe known either as the Sorbs or the Wends that populated this part of Germany starting in the 6th century or so. Although their physical geography swapped rulers like baseball cards over the centuries, today the peoples of Lusatia have to content themselves with cultural rights and the protection of both dialects as minority languages in Germany. (There’s even a bilingual high school in Cottbus.)

If that weren’t good enough, coming to Görlitz, the first thing I noticed was the town is actually…divided into two by a river – and a national border – and obviously one side got the better deal:

The city was unified until 1945 when the borders for Germany and Poland were redrawn and the Neisse River was thriftily used as a metric right about here. The fact that it divided a formerly thriving metropolis was just collateral damage.

First and foremost, Görlitz is gorgeous, drop-dead gorgeous. It’s also….oddly empty, at least big parts of it, for seemingly much of the time. The current population is around 56,000 souls, but the physical footprint and height of most buildings appear to be able to hold considerably more. Although millions of Euros were spent in the 1990s for renovation of stunning architecture, it seems so far, at least, to be a case of “If we build it, they may or may not come.” Of course there’s a story, but let me share some of the pictures and history. Here’s a picture of a cafe on the Rathaus (City Hall) plaza, the center of the Altstadt (Old Town) and some of the lovely Baroque buildings:

Here’s a charming street scene showing some fully renovated buildings and some that just wanted to keep a bit of patina, as it were:

You can start to see why many movie companies have chosen to use this little burg as the site for their shooting. Görlitz was used for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (where it stood in for Sicily), The Book Thief, The Reader, and even The Grand Budapest Hotel, where an actual Jugendstil department store, standing empty, was redecorated to serve as the hotel itself. (Must have been, ahem, glourious.)  I really wanted to see inside this particular building, but it was locked, like the cathedral, and here’s all I can offer:

…so as compensation, a posting I found this invitation on one of the windows, along with a shadowy representation of a photo-bombing blogger:

But before I could get too depressed, I briskly took myself off to walk more of the city streets to try to recapture some of the magic. I spied this intriguing mural gracing a less-than-stellar piece of architecture:

and not far away…

…I found these fine fellows guarding the modern pedestrian bridge that links the two cities and the two countries. I walked across myself to see if any buzzers would go off, alarms would sound, anything at all would happen, and of course, just crickets. I did, however, see the first free-range cat that I’ve seen anywhere in months. It scurried away before I could record the fact.

It was starting to get a little cool and dark and I thought about running for the train, and then I said to myself, “What’s the rush?” The city was asking far more questions than it it was answering, and I wanted to learn more. I marched into the most expensive hotel in town (thanks, Expedia) and learned it would be 50 euros to stay in a nice room with a nice view and enjoy a nice breakfast the next morning. So I did.

After I was sufficiently caffeinated, off I went to the local museum, which was absolutely wonderful, if a bit of a linguistic Pilates session since the information was only presented in German and Polish. And then the nickel started to drop, big time.

BESIDES being….currently German, on the edge of the Lusatia region AND a border town with Poland just north of the Czech Republic, Görlitz historically has identified itself with…Silesia. Right. I wracked my brain, huge repository of useless facts that it is, and managed to come up with one word. “Coal.” That was it. “Silesian coal mines,” my brain repeated, trying to be helpful. Clearly I needed more help to understand the situation.

Like Galicia, Ruitania, and Bessarabia, Silesia lives at the edge of my knowledge and understanding as the name of a piece of long-gone political flotsam and jetsam of the 20th century.  Short answer – Silesia is a historic region in the middle of Europe. But unlike in other blog posts, even after a quick scan of Wiki I’m not even going to try to summarize the history – it’s just way too complicated and convoluted to be believed. (Look it up if you are interested.)

Here’s a map from 1770 that gives you a quick overview including the location of the major players in the region and that should help a bit. First, find the dark blue blob in the middle. That’s Silesia (Schlesien), wedged between Poland on the right, the Czech Republic (Austro-Hungarian Empire) on the south and west, German Saxony on the direct west, and German Prussia on the northwest. Görlitz is located at the tip of the “nose” of the blue blob sticking into Taupe Sachen, just where you see the river coming south from Prussia.

You are here.

Silesia is rich in natural and mineral resources, hence its unending source of attraction (and desire for control) for the major powers around it. Its historic political and cultural “capital” is Wroclaw (German: Breslau), a lovely city I visited four years ago, and its major population center now is Katowice, a city hosting a pen show in a few weeks that I plan to attend with my best fella. The museum was chock-a-block of the usual stuff of good little museums – paintings, swords, statues, ceramic, maps, photographs. Since I shared the river geese and the wall horse with you, now it’s time for the museum chicken, symbolic of the wealth and high degree of craft that the region exhibited:

The museum building itself (the Schönhof ) was marvelous  – a masterful renovation of the oldest Renaissance building in the city that dates from 1526. Here’s a shot of a time when perhaps architecture was less important to daily life and the chickens were served on plates, not hung in cases. Like much of the rest of the city, the buildings were in quite bad repair by the time of German reunification (war, depression, war, DDR) and it was a matter of great civic and personal significance to the inhabitants that these buildings were restored.

A good museum always drives a powerful thirst, but sadly there was no convenient artsy bistro next door this time. So I hoofed around town some more, shocked to find that very few places in town served beer before 6:00 pm (are you sure this place is in Germany?). Turns out Görlitz is more of a “Kaffee und Kuchen” kind of place, and since that’s not my thing, I kept looking until I found the Altstadt Cafe, where actual humans (haven’t been many of those) were enjoying the sun and suds:

…and speaking of suds, on my way to the train station, I wandered past this interesting piece of urban art, hopefully soon to be returned to his summertime aquatic glory:

So, a captivating town in a region with a long and complicated history, now restored and renovated to perfection…will he come to kiss the Princess, awaken her from her slumber, and allow her to to take her throne on the European stage again? Perhaps the only thing worse that a beautiful old town filled with tourists and chain stores is …a beautiful old town…with no one to enjoy it. I hope that changes soon.

Posted in Germany | Tagged | 6 Comments

Hints of Heidelberg and Happy Trails

As some of you know, I spent a fair bit of my youth tucked away in rural southern California on the Mojave Desert. There’s a back story, of course, but what’s relevant here is that my little burg sported a museum completely dedicated to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. For those of you too young to remember, Roy and  Dale were the stars of “The Roy Rogers Show,” a Western cowboy program that ran for nearly 20 years on radio and TV. The museum, housed in a former bowling alley, featured loads of memorabilia from the pair’s personal and professional histories. Most striking of all, for me at least, was the incarnation of Roy’s faithful horse, Trigger, professionally stuffed and rearing mightily over the foyer.

So what’s Trigger in a bowling alley got to do with Heidelberg, you might ask. And well you should. As I travel around Europe, especially as I visit cities that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites or have similar amazing historical centers, it seems to me that many of those places have sacrificed their civic vitality in return for….becoming a kind of cultural Disneyland. This is a longer topic, one I hope to explore in the future, but now after having seen, among others, Heidelberg, Lübeck, Bath, Avignon, Cesky Krumlov, Riga, and even Prague, literally turned into beautifully restored, maintained and illuminated…stages for selfies and curio shops for hordes of tourists, it does give me pause. The places have survived and apparently are thriving, but not as organic day-to-day centers for normal citizens but as highly curated “experiences” for paying guests (including me, I assume). More later on this.

Anyhoo, I headed to Heidelberg last week because the local chapter of Democrats Abroad was hosting the annual meeting of DA-Germany AND that gave me a chance to see a city I had hoped to visit for a long time. Upon my arrival, I headed to my hotel located in the heart of the Altstadt and chanced to see this very lovely night shot of the Heidelberger Schloss (Castle), initially constructed around the year 1300:

So, “stuffed city” or not, doesn’t that image just get you all fired up to explore the town and learn more about its history? Of course it does, and first thing the next morning, after a hearty breakfast, I set off to do just that.

Heidelberg has a ridiculously long and fascinating history. Some of the earliest evidence of human life in Europe, the jaw of “Heidelberg Man” from somewhere between 60,000-200,000 BCE, was found in the area, according to Wiki. Evidence of a Celtic fortress of refuge and worship dates from 500 BCE, the Romans had a fort in the area, the Byzantines wandered through, and the town as we currently know it dates pretty firmly from about 500 CE.  Although the area saw a lot of Catholic abbeys after its Christian conversion, Heidelberg actually became one of the most contested regions for the fierce fights between the Lutheran and Calvinists in the 15th and 16th centuries (Protestants in the ring, hard to picture.) The university is Germany’s oldest and the pedestrian walking street, now home to an excessive number of global brands, is Germany’s longest.

After a good deal of huffing and puffing (the funicular was not working due to routine maintenance), I found myself at the castle grounds with this lovely view of the Altstadt and the Neckar river:

…and here’s a painting with a similar view, the “Hortus Palatinus und Heidelberger Schloss”  painted by Jacques Forquiere, a Flemish landscape painter, sometime before 1620. This garden, the first in the renaissance style north of the Alps and later lauded as “the eighth wonder of the world,” never quite achieved the goal of the painting, even though the engineer Salomon de Caus worked great wonders.

Back down at sea level, the view of the castle, a renaissance structure demolished in the 17th and 18th centuries and never totally rebuilt, still inspires:

But then it was time to head off to Significant Local Venues. On my way to the historical museum, I literally stumbled (damn those cobblestone streets) into the Documentation and Cultural Centre for the German Sinti and Roma. As you may know, in addition to Jews and other discriminated groups, the Nazis also performed an extermination campaign against the Sinti and Roma peoples of Germany, known often and incorrectly as Gypsies. Opened in 1997, “the Centre sees itself as a museum for contemporary history and a site of historical remembrance.” Their task is “to document the 600-year-old history of the Sinti and Roma in Germany, focusing on the crimes of genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, crimes that have been repressed from public consciousness for decades now.”

As with all places of remembrance, this was not an easy place to visit. The front desk requested that no photographs be taken, so I have to content myself with showing you the sign at the entrance to the building. It was a moving experience, a reminder, yet again, of the price of intolerance.

…and speaking of Holocaust and assorted themes, here’s a shot of the old Heidelberg Synagogue (or what’s left of it – the white lines indicate the walls of the original building) following the events of November, 1938:

Okay, respect paid, keep going. The local historical museum offered this fascinating insight into the amusements of the rich and famous. Here is a portrait of Perkeo (an abbreviation of “Perche no? for the Salerno-born Clemens Pankert), the dwarf-jester in charge of the largest wine barrel in the world, the Great Heidelberg Tun (Grosses Fass), located in the basement of the castle. Weren’t you supposed to see a pink *elephant* with that much juice?

Assssk and ye shall receive…

According to legend, Perkeo lived happily into his eighties “drinking only wine when one day he got ill and the town doctor had him drink water. He died the next day.” Jus’ saying. Watch out, TW…

Heading back to my hotel, I ran into perhaps the most hopeful sign of any I saw on this trip – a march and protest for  “Fridays for the Future.” Every Friday, many European school children of all ages leave their classes and protest for action against climate change. Bless their hearts – and lord give them strength and patience for the fight:

I’m going to try to find out where they march and protest in Berlin – the least I can do is go and clap like hell. Maybe they’ll even let me march as well.

Okay, so I really was supposed to be in Heidelberg for the Dems Abroad Annual meeting. I made it, at least for a few hours. Here’s a shot of Sherry, a pistol if ever there were one, making a pitch for her ERA buttons. No kidding, it really is a disgrace that the ERA didn’t pass in Virginia – the damn thing was ratified nationally *100 years ago,* but we’re still fighting in the states. C’mon now, y’all; let’s get this done.

…and then on my way to the train station after the final gavel fell, what the dickens did I see – but a very interesting Tee-shirt store. I think this message  may actually have had merit – but only up and until the Brexit vote, when our British brethren drank the same damn Koolaid that infected our recent national election. Interesting to consider nonetheless – maybe this is Europe’s actual perspective…

So there you have a snippet of Heidelberg, and as I head to Bamberg and another fossilized Altstadt and World Heritage site, I leave you with a bit of Roy and Dale. Extra points if you remember the melody:

Happy trails to you, until we meet again
Happy trails to you, keep smilin’ until then
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather
Happy trails to you, ’till we meet again…..

Posted in Germany, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Lost worlds…

The muse has been a bit quiet of late, a victim of the winter introversion that grips much of Northern Europe this time of year. But a sudden burst of energy this afternoon inspires me to finally share with you some of the highlights of my brief trip through Rome over the holidays to visit friends and family. A social occasion was cancelled one day leaving me free to my own devices, which usually means a long ramble through Parts Unknown. I had left the hotel and had just wandered through the old Jewish Quarter of Rome near Synagogue when I stumbled upon this curious pile of rock:

“Hmmm,” sez I, “There seems to be a bit missing here.” And indeed there was and is. It appears this bit of the Porticus Octaviae, the Portico of Octavia built by the Emperor Augustus sometime around 30 CE for his sister, is in the process of being renovated and most of it is simply missing at the moment, at the spa, as it were, for refreshment. This edifice, originally designated for the worship of Saturn, was destroyed by an earthquake in 442 and later built upon into a church in 770. Falling on hard times, the complex served as a fish market in the Middle Ages and up through the 19th century. Sic transit gloria pescheria…

This bit of ruin started me musing about the role of recycling, as it were, in the history of Rome, and perhaps in the history of all cities of long standing. Building supplies always being heavy, expensive, and probably in short supply, it’s only reasonable that thrifty and hardworking urban architects and builders have used the resources available to them, no matter their origin or initial intent. Here’s another example nearby:

You see this kind of thing all over Rome, and indeed all over Italy…older edifices being extended and expanded to allow for modern needs. Quite cool, actually.

The next stop on the trail was a trip to the Museo di Roma, across the street from where I was staying (I recommend the Hotel Damaso, by the way). As an interesting expansion of the above topic, included among the collections of columns and sarcophagi was a series of photographs explaining how Rome had dug up a significant portion of the city in the early 20th century trying to bring the miracles of modern civilization to this most ancient civic venue. In the process of years of massive land moving, loads of artifacts from centuries past had come to light, and it took a veritable army of archeologists to try and keep up with the discoveries. Here’s a photo of Rome on the operating table, as it were, in the early 20th century:

….and another grand shot, just because I like it, of the early days of driving in the Eternal City…

Much of the material uncovered during those renovations has formed the bases of many museums in town and even around the world, but what an amazing treasure hunt it must have been during those years, and how sad to think of what might have been lost or damaged unintentionally as “collateral damage” in the installation of plumbing and electricity. Here’s one relic that turned up in the rubble. a bishop literally consigned to the dustbin of history from his former glory gracing a cathedral:

Rather indignant

Near this exhibit of historic ruins was another display, this one photographic, of the development of post-war Italy from 1946-1961. Little was I aware that this was an astonishingly important and dynamic decade and a half in the country’s history, catapulting Italy from rubble to a vibrant modern economy, a process which, sadly, has not been sustained at the same level of intensity. Here’s a shot of the pride of the Italians in the first grim days after the end of the Second World War:

“We are against the comfortable life.”

Thankfully, this oddly Puritanical streak was short-lived. Here to make sure La Dolce Vita returned as quickly as possible to the shores of his family’s birth, the former (1933-1945) mayor of New York City, Fiorello H. La Guardia distributes refugee aid (and blessings, apparently) in his role as director general for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. This is a photo from 1946; he died the following year at the age of 64. A crowning achievement to an impressive career of public service.

….and here’s perhaps one of the coolest photos I’ve ever seen, just from the perspective of star power….one Italian cinema’s most enduring objects of fascination finding herself gobsmacked at the day’s news…

“Man in Space”

After all this history and upheaval, I truly thought I was done for the day with only a half an hour or so before the evening appointment. To my surprise, I then stumbled, literally (all those cobblestones) into yet another surprising exhibit, this across the street from the Museo di Roma (and directly next to my hotel, if you’re paying attention):

“The Jewish Museum of Rome and the Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco host Ludwig Pollak: Archeologo e mercante d’arte (Praga 1868 – Auschwitz 1943), an exhibition of antiques and archive material relating to the esteemed archaeologist and art dealer Ludwig Pollak. The exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of Pollak’s birth, in Prague in 1868, as well as the 80th anniversary of Italy’s racial laws, promulgated by the fascist regime to enforce racial discrimination, mainly against Italy’s Jews. Pollak is best remembered for important archaeological finds, including his extraordinary discovery in 1906 of the missing Laocoön arm which he donated to the Vatican. However Pollak’s celebrated career came to a tragic end on 16 October 1943 when he and his family were among the 1023 Jews rounded up in Rome’s Ghetto district and deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he perished.”

Having earlier that day visited the self-same ghetto, the day was beginning to have a curiously circular and thematic quality to it (Jews, archeology, lost worlds), so of course I had to see as much as possible of this next amazing display in the time I had left. Here’s a portrait of the man in question:

A knowing gaze

Pollak was born in Prague in 1868 and was himself the director of Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica, hence the exhibit this year of his life in the very museum where he spent a good deal of his professional life. The building itself is small, a former Roman home transformed into a gem of a museum, and features a range of fine pieces of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and other ancient artifacts. I found the personal elements of Pollak’s life more interesting, I am ashamed to admit, but offer by way of example this shot of his Rome apartment, obviously chock-a-block filled with his favorite historic bits and pieces:

Hard to dust

No, you’re not losing your mind and there’s nothing wrong with your monitor, The colored piece indicates that the picture itself was part of the exhibit, and indeed it was. Finally, I was gripped by, for some reason, and have to share with you this photo of Pollak’s friend and fellow art lover, Sigmund Freud with his two sons, Ernst and Martin (or Oliver), who all served in the Austrian army during the first World War. Here they are with Dad on a rare leave from the front. Happily I can report they all returned home more or less in one piece.

A final shot…here a comparison of the city of Palmyra in Syria, on display in the exhibit since some of the artifacts in the museum had come from there. Above is the city as it had stood since the first or second millennium BCE until the 21st century, a beacon of learning and tolerance in the region, and below as the Islamic State left it after intentional destruction in 2015. Sigh.

I left the exhibit, as you can imagine, both fascinated and sad. Such a beautiful day, filled with discovery, wistfulness, regret, and yet occasionally of hope and humor. How much I love this life of travel, exploration, and learning….and how grateful I am to be able to share it with you.

Posted in Italy | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Searching for Szczecin

Indeed it’s been a while since I’ve set out to explore a new part of the world (or at least, new to me). So when T and I had a few days free recently, we made a wild impetuous decision to spend a weekend in….Szczecin, Poland.

Besides its nearly impossible pronunciation (something like “shtetshin,” similar to its name during German days, Stettin) and historic interest, Szczecin had the benefit of proximity (two hours by regional train) and cost. We booked a room in the fanciest digs in town and paid about half of what a boring hotel chain might cost in a standard German city. So with no expectations besides novelty, we hopped on the train and set forth.

Short snippet o’ history here: along with Gdansk (Danzig), Wroclow (Breslau), Poznan (Posen), Klapeida (Memel) and others, Szczecin inhabits a slice of territory that has gone back and forth between Germany and Poland for nigh on close to a thousand years and has as long and complicated a history as any city you can name. Until the start of the Second World War, the city had been a thriving port and industrial center with somewhere in the neighborhood of a half million inhabitants. Allied air raids in 1944 destroyed about 65 percent of the city, and when it was transferred to Polish control a year or so later, those 400,000 inhabitants were forciably expelled, leaving only about 25,000 hungry souls still in residence. Dislocated Poles and Ukrainians from other parts of Europe were rapidly resettled in Szczecin and rebuilt the city, but of course, on a very low budget and with pressing time constraints.

Which is where the urban architecture, and the accompanying history gets interesting and a bit sad. The city today is a mix of the old and new. On one hand, you have the remainder of what was a beautifully planned, beautifully laid out, and beautifully built city, almost French in its symmetry and geometrics. Whole blocks still maintain the gracious spacing and elegant facades that lend themselves to long strolls along tree-lined boulevards or through inviting parks, squares, or shopping areas.

On the other hand, there’s the rest…the awkward blocky rectangles of “socialism strikes again” architecture that one sees all over the former Iron Curtain countries, sprinkled liberally around the city as if shaken from a box in the sky that reads “Worker’s Paradise” on one side and “Aesthetics is for Sissies” on the other. These buildings can reach seven to ten stories and often sport brightly colored accents that highlight the moldy stucco and multiple lines of laundry. You get the picture.

Anyway, I have chosen in this post to focus on the parts of Szczecin that drew my eye to the history and the beauty of the past, and away from the bad fashion choices of the last seventy years. And first, because it’s Christmas, here’s a shot from the last day of the markets that we just managed to hit:

Humble but loveable

And here are a couple slightly sinister Grand Inquisitor/gnome-type creatures that graced a children’s game. Frankly, if I had been a kid, they would have frightened me off, and I sure hope I don’t see them in my dreams:

Our city navigation strategy is usually to search out and find antique stores, and hence we find ourselves often in the older and more historic parts of town. On this particular day, we only found the shops closed, but we did stumble on some lovely neighborhoods:

I was absolutely charmed by this courtyard below, located inside a clearly state-of-the-art 1902 Art Nouveau retail shopping and apartment building. A la William Morris, every architectural detail, all the fencing iron work, every shade of paint, everything worked together for a flawless presentation:

…but of course, the effects are fleeting; nearby a wag made a political statement on a natural gas meter:

…and a water fountain from former times maintains a watch on passers-by:

Close to our hotel stands the Pomeranian Dukes’ Castle, the seat of power in the region for about 500 years, roughly 1100-1600. We didn’t plan our visit well enough to get a chance to tour it, but I plan to on a repeat excursion:

You can see in the shot above how the mixed elements of the castle…are now cheek-to-jowl with more modern buildings on the street. (At least they line up with some regularity, unlike other parts of the city.)

And even the castle itself was decked in holiday finery:

Well, now that we’ve pounded leather for hours in search of pens and come up short, at least we’ve taken the measure of the place and decided to come back for more. That all, as you might imagine, works up a might thirst on a cold rainy windy day, which a local foam in a charming little cafe was more than able to slake:

Twoje zdrowie!

Then we headed back to our hotel restaurant where, as the only diners in the establishment, we were treated to an outstanding meal and a marvelous wine at a price that would have barely cover the wine anywhere else. What a pleasant surprise…

So there’s a little taste of Szczecin, just enough to get you as intrigued and curious as I am to learn more. I’m hoping to make many more such trips in the new year, and I look forward to having you along on my shoulder for every one.

Posted in Poland | Tagged | 4 Comments

DIY Berlin…

I’ve moved a lot in my life – 32 times, or thereabouts. This is literally three times the average for most Americans, of whom (according to the latest Census data) 11.6 percent moved house in 2017, the lowest percentage since the data has been kept. Europeans tend to move far less than that, and while I don’t have the exact numbers, I’m relatively certain this is true. I always wondered why – were they not curious about other cities and towns? Didn’t jobs or relationships drag them hither and yon? Did they have stronger ties to their hometowns than those of us in the Western Hemisphere?

…and now I have, at least, a partial answer to this question. It’s just a heck of a lot of work, more so than in the US. See explanation below…

As noted before, T and I have thankfully landed a flat in Berlin, which in the current real estate climate is somewhat of a miracle and for which we are very very grateful. (This of course means that we are contributing to the increasing prices and decreasing affordable housing for the rest of the population, but there you go.) One cynical graffiti artist put it this way:

Our flat is located in Charlottenburg, a “locality” quite close to the center of the city and filled with amazing architecture and even its own Schloss (castle) which transforms itself into one of my favorite Christmas markets. We’re in a slightly less aesthetically pleasing edifice than some of the “Altbau” (old buildings) that resemble something out of Paris and grace many local streets, but one which is (to its credit) amazingly well situated to shopping and public transportation, somewhere in this general vicinity:

So, so far so good. We took possession of the flat in August and had the walk-through with the management company (the all-important “Hausverwaltung”), which is when I learned that German flats come with…..practically absolutely nothing. Four walls in every room, full stop. Now, we were lucky that our flat had functioning bathrooms, but that was it. No….kitchen, closets, toilet paper holders, cupboards, shelves, washing machine, curtains, you name it. Nada. All to be left to the discretion, imagination, creation, and wallet of the new tenants. There’s a brisk market on eBay in…used kitchens. How weird is that?

Okay, then. Since I have spent much of the past seven years getting rid of stuff and T still maintains the place in Italy, it means we are starting from scratch with this nest, sort of the way you buy new stuff for your kid heading off to college. Our new best friends are now the good people that work at Bauhaus, a German version of Home Depot or Lowe’s. There’s a small but very functional “filiale,” or branch, a couple blocks away. My day is not complete if I don’t stop by for something (or maybe just lunch next door):

Home away from home

So when a kitchen starts with four walls, a radiator, and a couple pipes sticking out of the wall, you have a couple ways to go. There’s the “Pay a lot of money and have someone else do it” approach – very tempting, I might admit, or there’s the “Let’s just go minimal and let it emerge over time” approach, which is what we’ve voted to do. Happily, T’s brother is a carpenter, so probably we’ll end up with something very fine at some point, but in the meantime, we’re batching it a bit. Here’s the beginnings of a kitchen starting to take shape:

When these gentlemen left, we had, courtesy of our landlord who had forgotten he had promised this, a *basic* sink and stove. We bought the fridge (first purchase) and T added some shelves, so we’re in business in the short run. There have also been a few great contributions from friends, including these two stools who have cross-trained to become bedside tables:

Part of the fun of assembling a flat here, of course, is that you can take advantage of all the amazing flea markets and antique stores in the greater Berlin environs, places T and I go regularly in our search for pens and such. Here’s a shot of T fully engaged in his hunting-gathering element:

…and oh, the overwhelming possibilities for home decor….I vacillate regularly between fascination at all the amazing items available from decades of European craft…and wistful reflection and sadness that the inheritors of all this richness were, for some reason or another, unable to hang on to it. There’s also the realization that lives are far different now then they were not that long ago – porcelain, glass, and silver are no long the necessary accoutrements of middle-class life as they had been in the past:

But nesting challenges aside, it’s simply grand to be actually living in this vibrant, diverse, and whimsical city, a place I have loved since my first visit in December 2014. There is a lovely farmer’s market a few blocks away every Wednesday and Saturday, for example, filled with a variety of local delicacies but also a very amusing stand where the egg salesman sets up an electric train — and a bunch of stuffed chickens — to help attract buyers to his stand:

…and in one of the many local grocery stores, one is invited to purchase sausage from a range of local purveyors, a sight that T and I quickly dubbed “The Wall o’ Wurst:”

…and finally, no story about Berlin is complete with some of the local urban art, an exhibit of which has suddenly manifested itself on a construction wall nearby. Not exactly sure what a robed man is doing with a snake-like hookah, but that’s just part of the charm.

So, to all my fans who have requested pictures from the new place, the bad news is…that will just have to wait a bit until the rooms are street-legal ready to be shown off. I will confirm that there is a bed in place (thank god; only three trips to IKEA so far), there is a desk for my general sanity and continuing German studies, and there is the beginning of a workshop so T can do basic repairs and mailings. *And there is a guest room, ready and waiting for the first intrepid soul to come a’visiting.* When that happy day arrives, there will be something cozy waiting for you as well. Wish us luck on all the rest. I’ll keep you posted.






Posted in Berlin | 6 Comments

New name, new game

Dear Readers,

By now you’ve seen a picture of the Brandenburg Gate at the top of this blog for some time. This has reflected, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, my deep regard for this particular city and my hope to spend more time here, even though the blog name reflected my former cities of Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine. Well, sometimes dreams actually do come true, and I have one of these to share with you now. My dear spouse and I have acquired a permanent perch in Berlin and I am now able to settle in, put down roots, and really try to gain some kind of control over German declensions. So I am not starting a new blog yet, but just changing the current name to reflect my new venue and the happy opportunity to begin to make this fascinating urban landscape my own.

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Light at the end of the tunnel…

I’m just wrapping up another summer session at the International University of Japan where I am fortunate to teach and work with students and fellow/fella faculty from around the world. Since I finished my Phase 1 evaluations yesterday (yay) I was free to accept an invitation from colleagues G and J to go for a drive through the beautiful rural countryside of Niigata Prefecture and visit one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, the Kiyotsu Gorge. Now, if you know me at all well, you’ll know that doing the nature thing is not my strong suit, but G sweetened the offer by telling me that a young Chinese architect, Ma Yansong of MAD architects in Beijing, had recently transformed a tunnel that runs through the mountains and turns viewing of the gorge into…an edgy art exhibit in its own right. Pretty durn cool, thought I, and off we went on a steamy Sunday morning. Here are G and J strolling down the main street that leads to the tunnel:

A short distance ahead one finds the actual entrance to the viewing tunnel/exhibit. The whole complex is part of a larger art exhibit held about now in Japan in multiple venues spread over multiple municipalities. If and when I stop teaching at this time of year, I really have to check all this out – apparently the exhibits are world-class and definitely worth exploring. But in the meantime, I gots to grab my culture as I can among teaching academic writing and the joys of reference citation.

It was definitely a relief to walk into a darkened tunnel and know we’d be cool/er for as long as we were there. Japan, like most of the Northern Hemisphere this summer, has been sweltering with unexpected numbers of heat-related illnesses and even deaths. That being said, the Japanese are an intrepid clan and the site was busy and full. After we paid our 800 yen (just over seven dollars), we encountered a nearly kilometer-long set of hallways that looked much of the time something like this:

In typical Japanese fashion, the whole site was clean, level, relatively well-lit (variously colored lights were part of the attraction), and even complete with various geological notes and hyper-hygienic restroom facilities. A prehistoric shark tooth was found during the construction of the tunnel and passersby are given a slightly terrifying projection drawing to let us know how totally classed and outsized we were by the previous inhabitants of the region, the Carcharondon megalodon:

Once at the first viewing station, I stopped to snap a shot of the amazing streams of clear mountain water and well-worn basalt formations of the gorge that ran below the balcony:

…but equally enchanting to me, my talented and photogenic friends:

A little further on we found another part of the art installation, which consisted of cunning placement of lights and mirrors:

Another viewing area included a mirrored restroom in the middle of the space, which allowed yours truly to try some photographic legerdemain, including both myself and the gorge in the shot, all reflected off a curved surface:

At the final viewing room, we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular views of the gorge, simply breathtaking, looking back towards the direction we had walked. This trick gave us the impression the river itself had changed course:

This view, worthy in an of itself, was framed by a space that included a wading pool that ran nearly to the edge of the platform…a brilliant feature that brought out the inner child in all of us:

G, J, and I all appreciated that the audience was invited, nay, expected, to pull off one’s socks and shoes and wade about in the chilly but very refreshing shallow pond. Needless to say, my dogs thanked me for the rest of the day:

After this grand finale, we walked back down the series of tunnels and their various colored lanterns and back out into the swampy August weather. On the way to the car, I managed to have a very short visit with a somewhat shy local resident, the Anotogaster Sieboldii or golden-ringed dragonfly, according to J, a serious naturalist as well as a superlative English teacher. This transparently winged visitor, the largest native species of its kind in Asia, was nearly four inches long (100 mm) and departed abruptly before J could property document him with his professional equipment, much to his dismay:

This coming week I exchange the heat of Japan for the heat of Germany and return to language study and preparing for the fall season of pen shows and general mayhem. Thanks as always for accompanying me on my rambles and stay tuned for more adventures to come.

Posted in Travel - Japan | Tagged | 3 Comments

Lovely Leiden

Okay, so the language sounds like gargling and the regional food is inedible. Those are good reasons for avoiding a whole country for the entirety of one’s existence, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. How could I be so stupid? Based on my single experience (three days) in one city (Leiden) during a celestial stretch of warm dry sunny weather, the new conclusion is – the Netherlands are great! Incredible! Amazing! Just avoid the mushrooms in Amsterdam, according to one Hamburg cabbie.

My sister D had the chance to come to Europe for the first time ever (yay!) so she met me in Berlin and we spent a couple days there before moving to Hamburg and thence to Leiden. The choice of location was a shot in the dark for me, but I was looking for a place I could use as a base to explore this part of the world, and this little city, a historic university town, seemed as good as any. In addition, we were fortunate in our selection of hotel, the delightful Boutique Hotel d’Oude Morsch in a converted barracks (just go). But I just hadn’t quite clued into how lucky we were going to be.

Historic overview: Leiden began around 860, and like most of Europe, has been subject to all manner of indignities including a sacking by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in 1047, a massive canon attack by John of Bavaria in 1420, and a two-month siege by the Spanish in 1574 which has resulted in an annual holiday where the inhabitants eat raw fish and bread in honor of the resistance. But things really began to get interesting in the 17th century when Leiden, along with the rest of the country, entered their turbo-charged Golden Age.

For starters, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, the ninth child in his family (ultimate total unknown). His birth home has fallen to the wrecking balls of history, but several plaques and a lovely garden commemorate the spot in the alley directly to the left of this building where he drew his first breath:

Although Rembrandt only lived in Leiden until around the age of 25, he studied there in a Latin school (still standing) and the University of Leiden as well as began his own painting school. But by 1631 he had moved to Amsterdam, following, as it were, the money that was rapidly being generated there. And for the rest, see the Rembrandt House museum website https://www.rembrandthuis.nl/en/

At roughly the same time, though, Leiden welcomed a band of English Calvinists. Famous for its textile industry at the time, Leiden was known as well for religious tolerance, and it was for this reason that these pilgrims, soon known as The Pilgrims, perched there from roughly 1609 to when they set forth to the New World in the Mayflower in 1620. The Pieterskerk, a huge Gothic pile dating from roughly 1100 and now a busy community and concert venue, houses a lovely small exhibit honoring these brave souls.

Fascinating to me was learning that no fewer than nine presidents of the US can trace their antecedents directly back to this intrepid group of 100 travelers. Among them are John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both George Bushes…and Barack Obama, a direct descendant of Thomas Blossom. Ya gotta love those ancestry.com DNA tests….

The third cool 17th century miracle for Leiden was…tulips, of course. Although the first bulbs and seeds were were sent to Vienna from the Ottoman Empire in 1554, the effort was greatly aided by the Leiden botanist Carolus Clusius (1525-1609) who established the Hotus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. At his urging, the Dutch East India Company brought back plant samples from their contacts in their colonial empire resulting in a extensive and international plant collection nearly unrivaled at the time, and only recently so. Wiki tells us, “By 1636 the tulip bulb became the fourth leading export product of the Netherlands, after gin, herrings and cheese. The price of tulips skyrocketed because of speculation in tulip futures among people who never saw the bulbs. Many men made and lost fortunes overnight.” Sic transit gloria…tulipi…

So you really think D and I spent all our time on the history channel? No way. In truth, we spent many happy hours in sybaritic pleasures, among which we could count one truly glorious canal boat ride:

We had a terrific bi-lingual tour guide who helped us enjoy a lot of the wonderful scenery and history, as well as gave us the chance to capture pictures like this. Ya know you’re not in Kansas anymore:

Yup, this is all real, and we enjoyed a full hour of it, pausing only to duck our heads under the lowest of 88 bridges in town (yes, and 28 kilometers of canals, second only to Am-dam). I was particularly amused by the *artistic* rendition of some previous inhabitants:

…and happy not to have met these four-legged citizens in person, we enjoyed watching the antics of some of the live two-legged variety:

But mostly we did a good bit of this….and for the record, Heineken draft beats the bottles/cans any day of the week, as does the other local brand, named, helpfully, Brand:

But all good things must end and today I had to kiss D off at the airport into the hands of her waiting posse, off to Bruges for some wedding shenanigans. Sister trips – highly recommended. I heart you, D.


Posted in The Netherlands | Tagged | 3 Comments

An instant in Innsbruck

Since the last entry in Ravenna, your faithful correspondent has been moving around at a pace that even she is finding a challenge. But since I am fortunate enough to be in phase where this is not only allowed but even demanded, I am just hanging on to the magic carpet for all it’s worth and being grateful for the ride. Just recently, I returned to Berlin from my shared “country estate” in Abruzzo, treating myself to one of what must be the most beautiful train rides around – that from Bologna to Munich through the Tyrolean Alps. Now, since the closest I’m ever going to get to those peaks is probably through a train window (what? me hike?), I try to stay somewhere nearby just to enjoy them with my eyes. Last October I visited Bolzano; this time the stop was Innsbruck, Austria, a city I had last visited in 1974. On the way, I was treated to stops in unpronounceable villages like this:

Worgl Hbf

But before too long (four hours from Bologna), we pulled into Innsbruck on a beautiful warm spring afternoon. (Dear readers, I’ll spare you the long history this time; I’ll just remind you that it was the site of the 1964 and 1976 Olympics, the 1984 and 1988 Paralympics and the first Winter Youth Olympics in 2012). After dropping my bags at my hotel, I hastened out to enjoy the passing scene, heading straight for the scenic-beyond-belief Altstadt (Old Town):

Altstadt 2

Frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing scenes like this and poking around them like a visiting field anthropologist. And not surprisingly it seems a few hundred others share my passion. Nearby a local member of the chamber of commerce, I believe, was handing out brochures inviting one and all to an upcoming late shopping night. She was hard to miss, and was particularly kind to submit to my photographic impulses:

Inns tall gal

As I strolled through the Altstadt, I was pleasantly astonished to see how the locals had dealt with the vexing problem of how to include global franchises with the toothsome local ambiance. Here are a couple examples:

Inns McDonalds

and nearby…


Inns Hard Rock

What do you think of this, Led Zeppelin?

There was even Innsbruck’s own special variety of locavore – a “Speckeria,” mashing the German/Italian word for bacon or (probably here prosciutto) “Speck” with, obviously, the name for a place where such a product can be obtained and consumed. T, this one’s for you, my favorite gourmet:

Inns Speckeria

I was totally amused by the sight of a group of Indian tourists, following their guide (and flag) with the same duckling-like attention that characterizes the Tilley-hatted clusters of paler complexioned tourists in Florence and elsewhere. Incongruity reigns, cultures clash, and we all become richer for the mix:

Inns Indians

So by now you may be lulled into thinking that Innsbruck is all Imperial architecture and La Dolce Vita, and that is certainly in the case in this neighborhood. But on the way to the train station the next day (far too short a stay – looking forward to a repeat visit), I was reminded of another side of Innsbruck and Austria itself – a region and a country that still holds to long-held social traditions as well as a significant history of military and political might. I passed the Liberation Memorial at Landhausplatz, a commemoration to all those who died in the “battle for freedom 1939-45,” intriguingly (as far as I can tell) paid for by the French occupying forces of the time. The memorial itself is the thing with the eagle on top of it – it’s not part of the building behind, and it has, in many languages, sentiments for those who gave their lives for the country:

Inns - war dead

Further on, just because I chose to leave the hotel at the right moment, I encountered a parade in honor of Corpus Christi, the national holiday celebrating the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Newly baptized children, folks in national dress, loads of ecclesiastical types, some olde-style military marchers – this was a celebration of Austria’s deep religious and community roots:

Inns Corpus Christi

and the featured guest Himself:

Inns CC body

So with that I finished my own march to Innsbruck’s cheery newish train station and found my way onto my ICE to Berlin. It was a pleasant trip, if longish, spent in the cafe car for easy access to local cuisine and beverages as the perfect accompaniment to the rolling countryside beyond the window and the good book on my Kindle. I could get used to this….so until next time, “Ciao,” as they say in Austria…

Posted in Austria, Uncategorized | Tagged | 9 Comments

Rambles in Ravenna

Dear readers, the muse has been a bit silent of late, certainly not for lack of topics, but rather because I have been sucked up into the sizzling writhing morass that currently passes as politics in my country. Quoting from Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, “He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination  (emphasis mine) – you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” Anyway. I’ve been glued to MSNBC and basically every other news outlet I can get my electronic fingers on of late, and my writing (to say nothing of my sanity) has suffered a mite.

But time to get back on the horse, as it were, and what better place to start than Ravenna, Italy, where I currently find myself. My goal was to spend some serious time (a month) in a small Italian city where I could get a better sense of the culture and to use it as a base to explore a part of the country I don’t know well. Ravenna is home to about 160,000 gentle souls and lies within shooting distance of Bologna, Venice, Ferrara, Modena, Parma, and a number of other interesting spots in the northern area of the country, plus it is interesting  in its own right. So here I am for a spell, and let me share a bit with you.

Ravenna is best known for its amazing mosaics that are contained in eight early Christian monuments collectively proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 as well as a diverse collection from the Roman era. But what has come to me during my walks over the past week or two is the wistful sadness of a place that was REALLY SOMEWHERE VERY IMPORTANT FOR A LONG TIME but is now a modest one-or-two day flyby on an alumni arts and architecture tour for well-heeled tourists. Odd how one (I) pick up these feelings, but there you are.

But before I completely succumb to the nostalgia of the place, a few pictures. Here’s the view out the window of my lovely little AirBNB flat. I am staying just a block south of the historic city center in a little neighborhood with lots of lovely little shops and businesses:

Where everybody knows your name

A short walk away (everything is a short walk away) is the Museo TAMO, “Tutta l’Avventura del Mosaico,” a good place to start to understand the breadth of the mosaic culture  in Ravenna and indeed all of Italy. Set in a historic building itself, the church of San Nicolò, it is a ode to this beautiful and historic art form:

…and while I really enjoyed this overview and initial insight into the world of mosaics (about which I had known zip nada before this trip), the best part is seeing the work in situ, as it were, integrated into buildings that can take advantage of the size and impact of the materials. Here is one shot of the mosaic decoration on the interior of the Basilica of San Vitale, the most impressive of all the monuments. The building was completed in 547. Let that sink in. 547.

Reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

There really aren’t words to describe this. I plan to go back again and again. Because of its date of construction, the building contains Roman elements, Byzantine elements, and some of the earliest examples of flying buttresses which later made their way into Gothic architecture. Google this thing if you don’t believe me, it’s amazing.

Nearby was an intriguing little pool, still inside the building. My pagan impulses immediately thought that this edifice may have been built on the spot of an earlier sacred site, as often happens with Christian encroachment. A more practical idea is that it may have served as a baptismal pool. In any event, here’s someone else puzzling over its function:

Ravenna has a charming center city that mostly consists of a couple piazzas and the streets that connect them to each other and to the monuments. Outside of that carefully preserved historical bubble, it’s a unprepossessing little burb with some truly unhappy architecture from the 1960s and 1970s salted amid the renaissance palaces. But if you stay on the path, it’s nothing but La Dolce Vita. Here’s the Piazza del Popoplo on a mild April day:

Enough culture, where’s the gelato?

A short walk from here (see above on short walks), one finds Dante’s Tomb. Yes, that Dante. In exile from his hometown of Florence, Dante died in Ravenna in 1321. After a couple hundred years when tempers had finally subsided, the pope ordered the bones back to Florence but the wily Ravennians *sent an empty coffin,* Dante’s bones secretly hidden in a monastery for safekeeping. His remains only found the light of day again in 1865 or so during some renovations and now they are peacefully reposing on a quiet back street:

Speaking of tombs, the other biggie in Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Theoderic, located just outside the city. Now here’s an interesting dude that I had never heard of, but yowza talk about someone who lived at the crossroads of history and culture. Born in 454 in what is now eastern Austria near the Hungarian border, Theoderic was, according to Wiki, “king of the Ostrogoths (475–526), ruler of Italy (493–526), regent of the Visigoths (511–526), and a patrius of the Roman Empire.” Now that’s some resume. He died in Ravenna which had been his captial and was buried in the structure he had previously designed, but at some point his actual tomb itself was opened (the bathtub-like object below) and his bones scattered to the winds. Sic transit gloria mundi…

So Ravenna….significant for centuries as the site of a Roman seaport, a center for ecclesiastical Byzantine monuments, the capital of the Lombards, Dante’ home in exile, a province of Venice. Many famous writers have visited the city and fallen under her spell, including Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Lord Byron, Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hermann Hesse. Yet now she sits as if like Miss Havisham, dressed in the decaying gowns of yesteryear and waiting expectantly for another groom to come. In the meantime, Sister Immaculata prepares her youngsters for their First Holy Communion and the cycle of the year continues…

Vade in Pacem…

Posted in Italy | Tagged | 7 Comments