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Focusing on the past, in various forms, in our last few days abroad. (And why else would an American come to Europe? Oh yeah, the food.)
The music in my head this week is a continuous loop of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, “The Book” by Sheryl Crow (the one with “three days in Rome” in the chorus), and “DDR” by Tom Robinson. For obvious reasons.
After our usual breakfast (yogurt with muesli in the apartment, cafe au lait at the cafe downstairs) we took the S-Bahn to Nordbahnhof to see the exhibit on “ghost stations” there. We had a bit of trouble finding the exhibit, but it was well worth it. This has long been a fascinating detail to us of the division of Berlin. The East Germans closed off the station entrances completely, then built little police boxes on top, concealing stairs down to the security bunker inside the station (thus: bigger on the inside).
From there we took a long hike through very-much-under-construction streets to the Naturkunde museum, with giant dinosaur skeletons (and pseudo-augmented-reality goggles to put flesh on them), a keen exhibit on mammoths and elephants, and giant (2-3′) insect models from the 1930s. We are trying to focus on only the best stuff in each museum and then move on — we have a museum card so there’s no need to “get our money’s worth” and there’s a real danger of museum burnout. The museum’s neighborhood did not have a huge selection of restaurants. We settled on an Indian place, Swadi, and it was okay.
We traveled from the Naturkunde museum (which, by the way, was flattened in 1945 and not rebuilt until about 2006 — it still shows blast scars) to Berlin’s Museum Island, which is where the city’s greatest museums have been concentrated since the 1800s. We intended to hit the Neues Museum, then the Pergamon, but the first bridge we crossed took us right into the Pergamon and there was no way to get from there to the Neues without leaving the island so we visited that one first.
Here, as many other museums in Germany, we encountered a frustrating lack of signage, maps, and other directional information (the generic museum names, which translate to such things as “New Museum” and “Painting Gallery,” don’t help either) but OMG the STUFF!! The Pergamon has the largest single objects I have ever seen in a museum (for some value of “single object”), including the ceramic Ishtar Gate with its lions and dragons. What an astonishing statement of power! And the Neues Museum features the famous head of Nefertiti that you’ve seen so many times in photos. But these are only the most impressive and famous bits. Everywhere you go there are amazing historical artifacts. Even the museum itself is a fabulous artifact, with its frescoes and ornaments as well as its war damage on proud display.
That was a full day of museuming, so we walked home, stopping for gelato at Amorino, banh mi at CoCo, and a few groceries on the way. Back home, we ate our banh mi (which was quite good) and napped for an hour before our 9:00 PM appointment at the Reichstag. For, indeed, my Internet adventures on Tuesday had paid off and we were going to see the seat of the united German goverment.
The Reichstag was very cool, the dome of glass and mirrors and its spiral ramp quite impressive, offering great views of the city as the sun set. It was cold, though — the dome is open to the outside air. But still, this democratic institution governing unified Germany shows that things do sometimes get better, that there is cause for hope.
Also, we saw someone blowing giant bubbles in front of Brandenburger Tor.
As we’ve done in several other cities, today Kate and I took a day apart. For my part I headed down to Alexanderplatz and walked from there to Checkpoint Charlie, stopping at several points along the way to visit a museum or smash a penny or two. I encountered a lot of construction — the Rathaus (city hall) was surrounded by dug-up earth and was apparently completely closed, though there was no signage indicating why. (Later we learned that today is Himmelfahrt, or Ascension Day, so the government and many businesses were closed.)
At the Marienkirche, the famous Dance of Death fresco was nearly invisible, but to me the figures of Death looked more like alien Greys. Even spookier, perhaps?
Spending more time than usual in highly-touristed areas, I encountered many slim women with headscarves who all approached with the same question: “Do you speak English?” Something about them put my guard up so I just shook my head and moved on. I suspect they were beggars and/or pickpockets.
I found myself at the entrance of the Altes Museum and decided to use my musem pass to pop in and see what they had. Turns out the person who sold us the pass forgot to change the stamp, stamping it with the previous date, and then corrected it in pen — which made it look as though I had altered my pass to make it valid for an extra day. The ticket clerk let me in anyway, but I decided I wouldn’t try using the pass again.
The Altes Museum specializes in Greek, Roman, and Etruscan statuary — more naked and half-naked marble people in one place than I’ve seen in a long time, including a beautiful rotunda with all the Greek gods and a truly stunning Athena. Also an amazing little mosaic, about two feet by three, composed of cubes of stone (in their natural colors!) about two millimeters square.
I had a walking lunch of bratwurst from a sidewalk vendor as I traveled, and noted that “Hallo” is the standard greeting in Berlin even when Germans meet Germans.
At Checkpoint Charlie, I found an informative wall display… behind which someone had set up “Charlie’s Beach,” a large area of sand with beach chairs, palm trees, and food and drink for sale. Didn’t work real well under overcast skies with temperatures in the fifties. There was lots of other tourist kitsch nearby, including a McDonalds. Annoying, but I’d rather have a McDonalds than Soviet and American tanks facing each other down across the German-German border. The name Charlie, by the way, represents the fact that it was the third checkpoint for Westerners traveling to East Berlin: Checkpoint Alpha was at the West German/East German border, Checkpoint Bravo at the East German/West Berlin border, and Checkpoint Charlie at the West Berlin/East Berlin border.
A couple of blocks from Checkpoint Charlie is an excellent, free exhibit called The Topography of Terror, located atop the ruins of the old Stasi headquarters. I took about two hours to read the whole chronological wall — about three Portland blocks long, with photos and text — chronicling the rise of the Nazis, WWII, and the beginning of the Cold War as seen in Berlin. This is the summary of 1930s-50s history I’d been needing for some time. The exhibit also includes some information about the Wall and considerable information about the Gestapo and Stasi, which I skipped due to lack of time and energy.
From there I headed home, with a brief stop at Potsdamer Platz to check out a large, festive flea market. Probably that too is for Himmelfahrt.
We had a lovely German dinner at a place near our apartment called Botzow-Privat, which looks as though it’s essentially unchanged since some time in the 1800s. Wiener schnitzel (not too big) with fried potatoes for me, kasespaetzele for Kate, apple strudel for dessert, yum. Soon we’ll be back home and eating more sensibly.
Even though the restaurant was only about five blocks from our apartment, we took a different route there and back and saw some nice little parks, alleys, and shops we had not seen in the five days we’ve been here. Also, as we approached our apartment building from a different direction, I saw that our apartment — which is quite narrow — is actually the full width of the building. Looks like they shoehorned a six-story apartment building onto a piece of land that formerly held, what, a little corner shop?
Tonight has been a quiet evening of blogging and sorting our stuff. Tomorrow will be largely dedicated to getting ready for the trip home (we leave at oh-dark-early Saturday morning).