Friday, July 10, 2009

Dispatches from Germany

Dispatches from Germany
So far we feel right at home. The luggage came off the conveyer; the Budget rental car desk was handy and efficient; the car park opened directly to an expressway system that seems to go everywhere. But, wait, wind farms dot every horizon, their giant propellers slowly turning in the breeze. And there is no urban sprawl. Grain fields and pasturage reach right up to most city limits; even Berlin has yet to grow past its perimeter highway.

My wife and I are beginning our trip with a visit to an AFS student whom we hosted in Ithaca. Ten years later he is a medical student in Greiswald, on the Baltic coast. So we spent yesterday driving the diagonal from Frankfurt to the far northeast of the country. Right now we’re trying to shake the effects of jetlag and too many hours behind the wheel. Before I close this first entry, some basics.
“A” is for autobahns, Germany’s unbelievable superhighway network. They’re an Interstate system, only maintained, and along with the Volkswagen, Adolph Hitler’s only positive legacy. Although speed limits, 120 km/hour, are posted, don’t even think of getting into the passing lane at a speed less than 85 mph and don’t stay there unless you are willing to drive a hundred. “B” is for bicycle; every man, woman and child has one. Germans ride them all over, most without helmets. “C,” well, I can’t think of a “c” word now except “cansado.” But this will pass.

Not wanting to endanger my retired status, I have stayed away from most of the SALALM, but I will serve as your roving reporter, offering updates from venues outside the IAI and the Martim.
I am lodging in a part of the city that was off limits when SALALM met here in 1986. In those days the city lived in the shadow of The Wall. Visitors were never far from it, and Berliners lived with the daily reality that they were never far from freedom or oppression. The Wall is down now, chewed into tiny bits recycled as road fill, but its legacy will be a long one. Even with the incredible reconstruction of the city strange anomalies remain—tram tracks ending in nowhere mark the route of the wall. Enormous apartment blocks still dot the horizon, and no amount of paint and plaster will erase the memory of who built them. There is, apparently, a certain nostalgia for the good old days among some former East Germans. But I suspect that this is disingenuous. No one would want to return to a time when neighbors spied on neighbors, when consumer goods were frightfully scarce and when families were forcibly separated by the force of politics.

Since my last post, I have thought of some “c” words. The first is “c”rane, the tall metal ones. They are everywhere, even in these tough economic times, rebuilding the city. The second is “children.” They’re everywhere. Apparently, Berlin has the highest birthrate in Europe. I’ve amused myself by photographing children in strollers.

No one spending time here would fail to notice what a melting pot Berlin has become. The Turkish community is to Berlin what the Mexican community is to Los Angeles, the largest outside their countries of origin. Yesterday we were chauffeured by a Palestinian from Gaza and served by a Kosovar waiter. Each was expecting a child, the Kosovar, twins.

“D” is for dogs; Berlin is full of them, and in a strange contradiction of German rectitude, Berliners habitually walk them off-leash. Giants and toys, riding in bicycle baskets and trotting beside runners, sitting under restaurant tables, openly defecating in parks, all well-fed and collared, dogs are everywhere.
As another legacy of the Cold War, Berlin is filled with what are now overlapping cultural institutions. There are doppelganger opera companies, national libraries, and symphonies currently living separate lives but headed toward shotgun mergers. What brings this to mind is Sunday night’s trip to the Opera Komishe, a beautiful 19th century hall in the former East Berlin. Six SALAMists and dependents went to hear Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. I am a great fan of the music—it lives on my iPod—but I had never seen it performed, and I was a little let down. The staging combined 1930s Weimar decadence with gangster Chicago and Olympia first appears as a dominatrix. Get the picture? I considered closing my eyes to the spectacle, but with a full-day’s touristing under my belt, that would have meant nodding off.
Another cultural duplication, if culture can ever be redundant, is Berlin’s vast array of museums. In the partition, the Commies got Museum Insul, three 19th century buildings dedicated to the glories of antiquity and German science. We saw the famous reconstructions of the Pergamon altar and Babylon’s gate, excavated and removed by German archaeologists nearly 150 years ago. The audio guide, recorded in rich, Oxfordian English studiously avoided the issue of cultural patrimony, but you have to wonder. On the western side of town, corporate and individual donors created new spaces for their collections, among the most notable is the Bergurren in Charlottenburg, with its remarkable collection of Picassos.

“E” ist für eis, cream, that is. It’s been hot in Berlin, and ice cream is just the ticket. It’s served everywhere and consumed copiously especially by children (see “c,” above). I have sampled widely and narrowed my favorites to the many flavors of chocolate concocted for German palates and strawberry a fruit now in season.

Last night the local organizers and book dealers really outdid themselves at the reception. The venue was nothing less than the Gemaldegalerie, a museum lit only by filtered sunlight. Here Berliners have lovingly reunited a collection of medieval and early modern paintings that were separated for half a century by politics. We marveled at the display of so much richness in a single, rather small, space.
The weather for the conference has been a mix of sun, clouds and rain, but on Tuesday, the haze lifted to reveal the east side of the Brandenburg Gate as a rich blonde-colored rectangle, topped by the Reichstag’s glittering dome. Nearby the Monument to European Jews, several hundred black granite rectangles aligned to suggest a cemetery cast dark shadows across its grounds.

Berlin must have one of the most efficient transportation systems on the planet. Bicycles roll along sidewalk lanes created for them. Electric trolleys work the crowds in East Berlin; buses and the Metro (UBahn) serve the West. Mass transit is supplemented by a ubiquitous fleet of taxis, mostly capacious Mercedes sedans. My wife and I have learned to reach most of the sites of interest by mounting two nearly-connected systems, the M-1 trolley that runs from the North Mitte to Humboldt University and the #100 bus that begins in the Museum Insul and runs along west toward Tiergarten. Somehow Berlin has also discovered an alchemy that makes rush hour disappear. A cab driver offered a not-altogether-satisfactory felicity about staggering office hours.

I can’t help but reflect on the passage of time between the SALALMs of 1986 and 2009. In those 13 years the city has undergone a remarkable transformation, reflecting the reunion of the modern German state. What the tourist sees is a tribute to ingenuity and determination, and the transformation is ongoing. Visitors in the coming years will see even more of the ongoing project to make Berlin a single city, but don’t wait for the next SALALM!
Your faithful correspondent has now left Berlin. I’m writing from the Rhineland.

Before I sign off, I want to add one more “a,” to my alphabetical list. Altakrueger and his staff did a fantastic job. Thanks, so much.

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