All posts by VickieVictoria

Intrepid traveler. Architect and appreciator of design, art, language, opera, history, and anthropology.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 10

Since arrival in Christchurch a couple of weeks ago, I am beginning to fall in love with this charming South Island city. The easy adaptation encouraged me to connect with two local meetups, one for sketching and one for German language exchange .

Before COVID in March last year, I had been following these interests in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was an active member of SF Sketchers, a group that met monthly to sketch outdoors with other fellow sketchers. Sunset Sketchers, a subset of the group, met in cafes on weekends for morning coffee and sketching in San Francisco’s Sunset District.

Since the pandemic hit ten months ago, we continued to meet sporadically outdoors but this group and other spinoffs finally settled into the Zoom meeting format. Weekly and monthly meetups allowed members to stay in touch by sketching each other, but no places and not live.

Being in Christchurch, I am able to connect with others having the same interests in person. I meet the local sketching group at the library every week, and my first field trip with them will be to the Ferrymead Heritage Park this weekend.

The German Language Exchange group meets every month at a local cafe. Led by a high school German teacher, the small group of five provides plenty of opportunity to speak and listen to German. Three of us are recent arrivals that quarantined before entering New Zealand. One is a woman from the UK, and the other is a New Zealander returning from university studies. We have plenty of material coming from abroad and explaining our experiences in German!

After the devastating earthquake on Feb. 22, 2011, the center of town is laden with new developments. It has taken a good ten years to return to life. With an injection from the government, Christchurch is now able to display its resilience and durability proudly.

Being relatively flat and laid out on a grid system, you can get your bearings quickly to navigate around the city center. The lovely Avon River meanders throughout the city and provides another means of orientation for the visitor.

A Devastating Earthquake in 2011

Unfortunately, many buildings in this area were flattened by the earthquake. Due to liquefaction, the same curse that affected San Francisco’s Marina District in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. Christchurch was not considered to be in an earthquake zone. Buildings in Christchurch were not designed at the time to take the vulnerability of soft, marshy land into account.

A few statistics about the earthquake: there were 182 deaths, and over 200 buildings that required demolition from damage caused by the earthquake. Over 300,000 tonnes of liquefaction were removed, and there was a 3-meter (about 10 feet) difference in distance between Rolleston and Kaiapoi after September 2011.

A large, block-long empty site peeks into the past: earthquake devastated sites like this one yearn for a developer to step up. A few new buildings have cropped up, but the many empty parking lots convey the extent of the damage, physically, economically, and emotionally.

New Life for Christchurch

Old Regent Street is double-loaded with period-style shops and cafes. A miniature golf park next to an amusement park and the city park provides plenty of free activities for children of all ages. Pop-up vendors selling favorites such as real fruit ice cream and chips fulfill desires for the weak at heart.

Today, many blocks of the city center are vacant or used for parking. City planners and the government have put alot of effort into urban renewal and bringing life back to this area.

Exploring the south side of the city led to a series of wall murals located on buildings. The empty parking lots in the foreground provided excellent sightlines for artwork while brightening an otherwise dreary environment.

The Avon River and scenic paths on either side calm the soul. In the adjacent Botanical Gardens, magnificent trees display themselves to strollers. Maori patterns are introduced along the paths telling the history and origins of the Maori culture.

A final stop at the City Library revealed exciting explorations for life-long learning. You can join free weekly programs to learn how to use laser cutters and 3-D printing, as well as how to use more old-fashioned skills like sewing and embroidery side by side. The weekly sketch group meets downstairs to hone one’s artistic skills.

Sketching in Christchurch

Speaking of sketching, I finally drew inspiration from a monthly zoom sketch group. We went back to basics using contour drawings, where you don’t lift the pen while you coordinate what you see on the paper in front of you. I exercised the same concept for the Tuesday night jam session with Bluegrass musicians via Zoom. Here’s what I came up with.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM MIDDLE EARTH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEKS 7- 9

I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.

The latest news as of this morning comes from RNZ, or Radio New Zealand and the issues facing COVID restrictions here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/434420/government-s-latest-covid-measures-described-as-both-too-strong-and-too-weak

The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.

It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.

Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.

New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.

There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.

New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.

New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.

Mt. Ruapehu National Park

Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.

Heading to top of Gondola Station
at Mt. Ruapehu

We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).

Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.

Overnight in Wellington

We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.

The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.

Ohakune Forest Walks

Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.

Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.

Holiday Cheer

With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM PAPAMOA, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 6

The song beginning with the words “Beautiful Dreamer” wafts through my mind as I ponder the sights and sounds of New Zealand. There are plenty of birds chirping outdoors. They wake me up when the dawn is breaking and continue throughout the day, but they seem to be particularly energized at dusk. Many species of birds share the stage here and give me determination to recognize them by name.

Having arrived in New Zealand a month ago, we are undergoing a transformation of normality. We can get hair cuts, go to the mall to buy Christmas presents, eat in restaurants, and more importantly, hug those outside our bubble. We follow the news in the U.S. intently and still share the lingering fear of what lies ahead. Despite the depressing news, we resolved that the best way for us to overcome unsettled feelings is to carry on with life as if it is normal…because it is.

We made a special trip to circumvent the local Tauranga area by car yesterday. As a thriving community of 150,000 people, it is no match for Auckland or other world cities, but its charm and intimate character speak volumes. There are well-heeled districts reminiscent of Auckland’s, but the beaches, country living, and resort life side by side increase its energy and promise.

We took a short walk through the “bush” along the shoreline in Welcome Bay. New Zealanders love “tramping” from very rigorous walks such as the one in world-famous Milford Sound, to tamer, local district walks.

The local radio talk show discussed the recent plight of international students. 60,000 university foreign tudents who left New Zealand to return home temporarily due to COVID-19 are now unable to come back. New Zealand’s economy not only relies on its foreign student population for income from tuition and fees, but it also funds many programs for other local students. The arts, music, labs, and research are being threatened if the students do not return. The pandemic affects everyone in big and small ways, even when the country is COVID-free.

We’ll be heading out to explore the middle earth of the North Island this week in an area known as Tongeriro National Park. It’s known for its ski area, but we are taking advantage of its off-peak seasonal rates for a family reunion.

Before that, I’ll be busy baking Stollen, my traditional Christmas treat. For the first time, I am also preparing mincemeat pie, which apparently is a recipe that originated in the 11th Century. Thanks to the Crusaders, who rocked and raided the Middle East, they pilfered the method of combining meat with dried fruit and spices. With time on my hands like many of you sheltering in place, I may also attempt to assemble and decorate a homemade gingerbread house. Give any of these a try and we can share stories of delight or disaster.

As we approach Christmas, I hope each of you will be able to spend time and celebrate with those nearest to you with joy and love, whether in person or virtually. A safe and healthy Holiday Greeting from the Fong-Chou Family!!

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM PAPAMOA, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 5

Now that everyone has a working context of my reasons for being in New Zealand during the Pandemic from last week’s post, it seems like a good time to reflect on my thoughts about my being here. Obviously, it feels glorious, exciting, and unbelievable. But behind the initial cloak of exhilaration, is a gloomy feeling of an imbalanced existence.

The first sensation is that of chance. Like winning the lotto, or how fortunate you feel for something that happened to you but that you had no control over. No skill, or talent, or grit. Just luck. How is it that I, as an American, can travel halfway around the world, to flee the doom of the rest of the world’s woes? Will we pay the price later? Is it a fluke, or is it something that will suddenly reverse?

The second sensation is that of loneliness. Why are we able to go about freely, in a dream-like society, to walk about and engage with other human beings? What privileges are we given for something that other citizens throughout the world are unable to do? As social animals, humans depend on our relationships with others. Despite being able to interact with 5 million other humans on a captive tropical island, what keeps us from interacting with 5 billion others?

The third impression of being in an odd, or unique country as New Zealand, is the abnormality of normality. People go about their daily lives, yes, with difficulties, but far, far less than those faced by the rest of the world. We can smile at others on the street and they can smile back, with 2/3 of our facial features unmasked.

We are able to hug each other—the most priceless possession at the moment for me and my family. And we are able to conduct life in normal ways—shop, go to the post office, have dinner in a restaurant. And we can even get ourselves exasperated at traffic, stand in line a little too long, and complain about the sports teams’ failures.

What has caused these feelings? No one asked for the pandemic. There is a price for interacting. The urban advantages of living close together are challenging us. But rural freedom is also paying its price. Neither environment is doing much better than the other, as we see numbers climbing in the U.S. in both types.

I have always been fascinated with anthropology. But it will take anthropologists a long time to come forward with their analysis of the pandemic. Maybe it will take decades or even hundreds of thousands of years before they are able to grasp the phenomenon of what we call COVID-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on our society today.

Perhaps they will find evidence of the pandemic. Like mass burial graves in Italy or China. Or chemical traces of the vaccine in our bodies we took to extend our lives. Or a sudden drop in world-wide birth rates, just like what one reads on tree rings indicating droughts. The scads of evidence collected will not convey the human emotion and stress.

New Zealand has indeed done a few good things. And with skill and endurance. A commendable deed between a government by the people and for the people. The U.S. has lost its moral compass, but long before this pandemic. The basics of human dignity were already tossed aside.

I feel as if I am living in the future, seeing normality in a world yet to experience it. Soon, the rest of the world will normalize. Streets will be populated, animated with people meeting people, and lives connecting again. Soon, the rest of world will be living their expected lives with fun, humor, sadness and irony. I am looking through this lens now.

I am grateful to be in a country that enables me to temporarily avoid the woes of the rest of the world. I can only hope that the rest will become “normal” again by this time next year. There will be many stories, tragedies, and fallout, just as there had been from the last pandemic. And we will recover. Mankind can only cope with so much before the next one strikes.

Pandemic Diary from PAPAMOA, New Zealand: week 4

Officially, we are just completing Week 2 of our “Freedom from COVID” visit to New Zealand. We spent the first two weeks in a managed isolation facility after leaving San Francisco on a flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. We were released and allowed to enter normal society on November 23.

After celebrating Thanksgiving at Papamoa Beach in a sprawling suburban house with our family in the Tauranga area, my husband Gee Kin and I transferred to a cozy cottage in the Papamoa Hills. There is a view in the distance framed by the Bay of Plenty, Mt. Manganui and the South Pacific Ocean.

Our short walks up the road from the cottage revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Without much effort, we sauntered past sheep and cattle grazing in the rolling hills, a horse next door, and birds including tuis, pheasants, and hawks.

I picked a bouquet of wild hydrangeas and daisies along the roadside in the midst of tropical ferns hidden in an alien pine forest. The non-native species here are now shunned. A massive national campaign is underway to return the natural environment to native species.

By the end of the week we couldn’t wait to get back to the beach. We could roll out of car in the free parking lot in 15 minutes and immediately feel the sand between our toes. We walked an hour each way without seeing many people as the beach stretched miles before us.

Daughter Julianne, partner Jeff, and precious Baby Felix are having lunch on the balcony of their barn on the avocado and lemon farm where they are staying in Te Puke, kiwi fruit capital of the world.

Why are we in New Zealand?

Five million residents in New Zealand (of which 13% are Maori) are currently able to move about and conduct daily life normally as they have always prior to the advent of COVID-19 in March, 2020. Under the leadership of the prime minister, the New Zealand government tackled the pandemic early and “hard”. 

Around 70,000 New Zealand citizens who were living abroad have been repatriated. Qualified spouses or partners of New Zealand citizens, like me, are allowed to join members of their families. New Zealanders have had a tradition of taking a couple of years abroad to do an “OE” (overseas experience). Many who have been living in other countries are now returning for the first time.

In March, there was a complete lockdown throughout the country. The international borders were closed and all incoming travel was banned.  All businesses were closed (no takeout or delivery) and residents could not leave their homes except to buy groceries. This lasted for about a month.  Except for a few minor breaches, the country has managed to contain any major outbreaks. Services and facilities were gradually opened by levels in a rational, consistent fashion with minimal reversals.

Around 6,000 hotel spaces are provided throughout the country to monitor and test returnees before they are released after 14 days with no symptoms. Travelers cannot come to New Zealand without a voucher for managed isolation facility. Over the upcoming holiday period, spaces are booked out. Airlines do not allow passengers to fly to NZ without a valid voucher for quarantine. Other island countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan have implemented similar policies for quarantine.

During the 14-day isolation period, travelers are given two nasal tests. The Ministry of Health calls daily to check in and take temperatures. The only times isolees are allowed to leave their rooms is for pre-booked 40-minute exercises in a confined outdoor area, where those exercising are escorted and monitored by Defense personnel.

New Zealand has always been extremely protective of its land and environment and prevents external hazards or pestilence to enter the country. COVID-19 policies are an extension of existing policies. Because New Zealand relies heavily on its tourism industry, it is also important to preserve its crown jewels for the future.

While only a tiny country by international standards, New Zealand has focused on what it can do in a responsible manner to protect its people. In close collaboration with the Ministries of Immigration and Quarantine, Health, and Defense, the government has maintained an explicit program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

And to complete the punchline for being here: it was a serendipitous adventure by Gee Kin’s father, who arrived in New Zealand in 1906 at the age of 19 from China to discover, like all immigrants, his fame and fortune. He stayed and left a legacy for his descendants from which we now benefit.

ARRIVAL IN New Zealand!!

After two weeks in quarantine at a managed isolation facility and three COVID tests in Auckland, we were released into normal society on November 23. Our journey before, during, and after had many twists and turns, but we were able to execute our plans to travel to New Zealand. I am extremely fortunate to come here with my husband, a New Zealand citizen, to join our daughters, who are both New Zealand citizens.

In this country of 5 million residents, Jacinda Ardern, the current prime minister, is known here and throughout the world as having managed to keep New Zealand free from many of the world’s woes over COVID-19. There is still much caution and work to be done, but we are witnessing how these efforts have translated into big differences from those of other countries.

It didn’t take much adjustment, as our long-term memory guided us to the familiar past easily. Without masks or social distancing, we could conduct ourselves just as we had done pre-pandemic. We could go to shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. It didn’t seem as surreal as our short-term memory flashed a vague feeling of anxiety and wistfulness.

We left Auckland and drove three hours south to Tauranga, located in the Bay of Plenty. It is a large beach resort similar to Santa Cruz or Newport Beach on the California coast. As the weather was turning into summer, the balmy breezes, warm days and cool nights reminded us of our coastal weather. We took a short walk through Mt. Manganui with beautiful , crisp views of the bay.

Our Air Bnb was located a couple of blocks from the extensive Papamoa Beach. With over 10 mile stretch of pristine sand beach, residents of this small community of 20,000 have no problem with parking or access to it.

New Zealand is better at acknowledging its Maori culture and history. Substantial progress has been made in recent years in promoting the country’s first inhabitants. Maori names and language are being integrated into daily life. We encountered some students at Papamoa Beach practicing for an upcoming event.

Small-scale farming is ubiquitous throughout the country. We stopped at a strawberry patch and a lemon and avocado farm to enjoy the spring bounty. The header above is where daughter Julianne is living.

Most of this first week has been consumed with our arrival and joyful family gatherings, so my comments on New Zealand are brief. Please stay tuned for more to come over the next few months!

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Dresden

As we enter into an uncertain future over the next few months and the advent of the holiday season, it seems inappropriate to revel in travel experiences. Yet they bring fond memories of a time past. I wonder whether we will ever be able to have such joyful experiences again. The COVID pandemic has indeed affected every country to a large extent because of travel. Globalization has taught us that there are drawbacks to a shrinking planet, and costs to mixing human interaction, culture, economies, and democratic principles.

Nevertheless, here is my defiant celebration of the past. Secretly, I hope that the world will rebound in the coming year. In doing so, perhaps we will be older and wiser at our choices, and ensure greater appreciation of our relationships, our environment, and protecting both.

Dresden 2019

In previous posts, I confessed about my love for Dresden. Granted, Berlin topped my favorite city in Germany, until Munich came along. Like children, it’s hard to give way to one over another. Nevertheless, I maintain great fondness and admiration for Dresden, the first city where I studied German and formed deep impressions about Germany.

Music and art surround you in Dresden. The U.K.’s Daily Telegraph regarded Dresden as having one of the best music festivals in Europe, with popular performers like Rufus Wainwright and Eric Clapton showcased along with world-famous classical conductors and symphonies. When I first studied art history in college, I became curious about where Dresden was (pronounced DRAYS-den by Germans). Many famous Romantic paintings were located in Dresden.

I returned to Dresden several times–for the music, the beautiful Baroque architecture, historical museums and art collections, the intimate surroundings, and the familiarity.

The new state of Altstadt vs. the old state of Neustadt

The location of Dresden’s landmarks are confusing, because the old part of the city was rebuilt after WWII and should be called Neustadt. But the neighborhood to the north of Dresden on the other side of the Elbe River is already called Neustadt. It was named that after a big fire in Dresden in 1685.

The beloved original Baroque buildings have been imitated every 200 years or so and throughout generations in between. So it is barely detectable whether they are from today (21st century), yesterday (19th century), or from its original reconstruction (1685). Dresden is fixated on the urban massing and proportions of five-story blocks with mansard, gabled roofs. It has committed itself to an elegant and functional building form worth repeating.

Altstadt

The plazas and central area of Dresden surrounding the major museums, the Frauenkirche, the Residenz, and the Semper Oper continue to impress old and new visitors to this historic imperial city. The large pit that was left open for a few years in the middle of the city due to archaeological excavations have been filled. In its place are replicas of the old Baroque buildings that were bombed during WWII. (See header above).

In the center of town, numerous free musical events took place throughout Altstadt (the old new part of the Old City). Fellow German classmate Vladimir and I reconnected and caught a couple of young and old rock bands, two choir groups, and a brass chamber music ensemble. The often shuttered Japanese Palace was open on the weekend to host some of these events.

Neustadt

The Neustadt neighborhood, created after a major fire in the heart of Dresden’s Altstadt, or “Old City”, is still relatively historic and elegant, with Baroque buildings from the 18th Century. So it’s a bit of a misnomer and confusing to first-timers here. The streets are still relatively narrow in scale, with streetcars rumbling along the cobbled streets in a predictable ambient noise level. They are punctuated by the occasional bells ringing from the many local Protestant churches nearby.

The Neustadt area where I live is jammed with young residents and visitors. It’s a lively scene every night. Party-goers on bicycles invade the corner and perch on the curbs for hours on end. While the noise is evident, the scene is manageable. The bauhof or courtyard in my apartment building provides just enough sound separation to make any noise barely detectable.

The true test will be the annual local festival in the area next weekend, when the neighborhood comes unwound for three days. Clubs and restaurants will offer free music in nearly 20 different locations.

Inner Neustadt

Courtyard buildings, designed to allow light and air into the deep superblocks, create intriguing walkways and chasms of sunfilled delight and discoveries from the busy thoroughfares now laden with shops and restaurants.

Inside the Kunsthof Passage, or “Arts Passage”, is a delightful array of new buildings designed in the same proportion and massing as the surrounding Baroque buildings. Exteriors are decorated with tile artwork in a fanciful display of creativity and fun. “Lila Sossa”, a resturant now becoming an institution in the area, serves organic dishes and desserts from Mason jars.

Food, Naturally

I’ve been buying my groceries at the corner Bio-Markt. It’s a minature supermarket complete with organic produce, fresh meat, dairy, and bread. I avoided the bread and wine to promote healthy living, but I did buy some landjaeger, one of my favorite dried sausages. It is packed with flavor, great for a snack or outing, and demonstrates one of Germany’s culinary skills: sausage-making. A joke on twitter said the Germans, facing COVID lockdown, have now resorted to their würst-käse scenario.

Food is still inexpensive and inspired by international standards of quality and diversity. I had a vegan rice wrap with glass noodle and spring rolls with tea for under $8 for dinner last night, but had trouble deciding among the extensive selection of Japanese, Afghan, Indian, Turkish, and even German specialties within a one-block radius of where I lived.

Germans are learning how to eat better and their culinary adventures are catching up with the rest of the world. Germany has the second highest number of Michelin star restaurants after France. Like the English, German latter day culinary awareness is under-appreciated. The fruit basket on display at a fair is a reminder of how ugly fruit and vegetables are wasted for visually-appealing choices.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Although I am primarily in Dresden for a German course, I feel like I am leading a double life. I have been researching Music Festival concerts being held for another week here. I have managed to squeeze three performances in three days while attending classes. If you were ever contemplating how to learn about music by going to performances, this is the place to do it.

Prices are reasonable and with student “rush” tickets from the Goethe Institute, you are in business. I paid 20 Euros for “Pictures at an Exhibition”, a piano recital at the Albertinum Museum. It turned out to be a double bargain, since access to the museum was free immediately before the performance. 

In a fascinating program combining music and art, Tokarev first  played Tsaichovsky’s  “Character Pieces for a Year” for piano. Each month’s themes portrayed different moods and feelings, from romantic songs to grand celebrations. The second half was followed by Mussorgski’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The tunes were skillfully enhanced by a video installation.

The program certainly increased my appreciation of the two composers, and it communicated the beauty in their work. Kandinsky’s “Large Gate from Kiev” painting from 1924 was featured in deconstructed movement and timing. Everything was seamlessly coordinated into an exquisite visual and musical experience.

Nikolai Tokarev, the soloist, has won numerous European piano competitions, performed alongside many European orchestras, and produced CDs interpreting beloved Russian composers. 

The Albertinum Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Bauhaus” was the second windfall. Created in Germany in 1920s, the Bauhaus included members shown in the exhibition such as Maholy-Nagy, Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky. It was a good warm-up to the performance.

The teachings of the Bauhaus formed the foundation for my undergraduate training in design at UC Berkeley. The Bauhaus developed design concepts and tools for mass production. Art, technology, architecture, painting, sculpture and construction are integrated with each other and this approach was developed from this movement.

Two-dimensional geometric lines and color like those by Piet Mondrian evolved into three-dimensional shapes. It is easy to see how industrial design and furniture like those by Marcel Breuer were an extension of isometric details and design.

The attendees at the Exhibition were exhibitions themselves. One woman wore a tastefully chosen black and white polka-dotted dress with red heels and accessories. Another more casually dressed gentleman clad in classic German black pondered in front of a textured wall. It served as a backdrop for artwork designed in the 20’s as part of the Bauhaus movement.

Last but not least, a quick rip through the classical section of the Albertinum revealed many forgotten items in storage and on display–a sad reminder of the dilemma of wealthy collectors.

After the end of the performance and three encores, the warm evening air outside reminded me of what a special place Dresden is in place and time. The view below is photographed from the Albertinum in Altstadt. Frederick Augustus, Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland, built most of Dresden’s original Baroque buildings here in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.

An irresistible ticket price of 10 Euros drove me to the Semperoper to see Angela Georgeiou, the Romanian diva, in Tosca. Despite being in my favorite opera house, sitting in the fifth row slightly off center, a “clean” stage without a distracting cast of thousands, and the bargain, the performance was disappointing.

Here are two other concerts I attended:

Grigory Sokolov Piano Recital

Born in 1950, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov can still apply all faculties and fingers to a long and rare public performance. The audience was extraordinarily attentive, reflecting the pianist’s skillful yet delicate playing.

The Germans, as I have mentioned before, are stingy with kudos but you know you have seen something worthwhile when the audience gives multiple standing ovations (after stamping their feet). Sokolov showed his gratitude by performing several encores. It didn’t hurt that the newly renovated Concert Palace in the heart of Dresden is acoustically perfect. Musicians travel to the venue by bike and tourists arrive by public transportation at the front door, so pre-concert traffic is non-existent.

Dresden High School for Music

Music permeates daily life in and around Dresden. The Dresden High School for Music demonstrated its mettle with a high quality string orchestra consisting of 11 to 19 year olds. Serious students and attentive audiences symbiotically promote a strong future for classical music in Germany. The school was beautifully and acoustically designed for music and performing arts.

Rather than for me to carry on about why I love Dresden, I will defer to earlier posts written in August 2014. You will find them in the search or in the summary of posts for that month.

We will be pausing the Europe Series/Silk Road Extension next time, in order to feature real-time postings from New Zealand. Be sure to join us for new insights of traveling in a country that has managed the COVID pandemic better than most other countries.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Berlin (D2)

After introducing the city in the last post, I feel obligated to complete the rest of my Berlin posts from 2016. Yes, it’s long, but for those interested it will capture a hefty dose of the sights and sounds of Berlin that should still exist today. The only downfall to me is that most travelers outside of Berlin are unable to experience the city’s treasures real-time today, in November 2020. Let’s hope we can do so by this time next year….

I’ve also included a quick trip to Berlin at the end of this post from Winter 2016 with daughter and pastry chef, Melissa. The upcoming and final post from Germany will be from Dresden.

Neues Museum

Aside from the pillaging of art treasures from their original sources, the collection was exceptional. Mostly from 2400-1200 B.C (Middle and Late Kingdoms). Queen Nefertiti’s head was here, but photography was not allowed. Exquisitely beautiful. Figures were lively and not as stiff as most representations of Egyptian art. They spark the curiosity and desire to learn and understand more. Enjoy the photos and captions where available.

Berliner Dome

The Berliner Dome, like the Berlin TV Tower, shares a prominent place in the city’s skyline. And, like the Tiergarten, this visit gave me a chance to slow down and absorb its inherent beauty . While it is a “Protestant” Church and not a “Catholic” cathedral, it nevertheless was highly ornate. In 1905, it was a last gasp for the Prussian monarchy. It was restored in the 1990s.

The main chancel apse had three impressive panels showing the birth, cruxifiction, and resurrection of Christ. A large organ in the niche to the left made me want to return to hear it one day. The basement was a bit creepy as it held the crypts of many of the Hollenzollern lineage, including that of King William Friedrich (1861).

I subjected myself to an adventure at the Comic Opera, where I saw Massenet’s “Cedrillon”. It was loosely based on the story of Cinderella, so a bit of a ho-hum with nice music. The cast was subtly baudy (if that’s possible). It reminded me of the opera-goers’ version of San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon. The chorus or corps de ballet definitely provide the tongue-in-cheek comic element. Despite top-notch singing and a pretty good stage set, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The opera house itself was worth seeing. It still conveyed the grandeur and aura of the past,  but sadly was a bit shabby and in need of a face lift. A surprise inspiration were large video screens in the lobby, that show current performances and cast lists. Cedrillon is replicated here. The last photo below shows the actual evening’s cast and curtain call.

Jewish Berlin

Berlin recognizes its Jewish history and the part it plays in understanding the city today. Our guide, Matthias Rau, started our tour of the area at one of three Jewish cemeteries in Berlin. A reproduction of the headstone of Moses Mendelssohn is located in the cemetery (see photos in slide show below). He was one of the major leaders of the Jewish community in Berlin in the 18th Century. If you are interested, you can read more about Moses Mendelssohn here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Mendelssohn

Brass plated tiles with inscriptions of names of Jewish people who lived in the area are found throughout Berlin. Organized by a private foundation, this effort identifies individuals, their birthdates, where they died, and when. Most of the inscriptions we saw identified Auschwitz as the place of death. (We later noticed plates in Kreuzberg.)

1. Only some of the stonework with inscriptions were salvaged at the cemetery. The grave sites are covered with ivy.

2. The site of the “missing house” is used to identify Jews who had lived in the building. Tags on adjacent buildings indicate where each family lived and are stark reminders of the lives that disappeared.

3. A tribute to Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in Berlin. She was part of the Jewish liberal sector.

4, 5 and 6: The New Jewish Synagogue (1866, Oranienstrasse 30) was the center of the Jewish community (also wooden doorway from Entrance) .

7. Augustus Strasse, where the Jewish School (shown in photo on the left) was located. It now is used for community space, the Kennedy Center, and other public facilities.

24 hours in Berlin

On Saturday, a fellow German student from Dresden and I spent the day exploring Berlin together with the following schedule:

10:00: Met friends from the Berlin Goethe Institute for Brunch at Sud Bloc, a Turkish Restaurant in Cottbus Tor.

12:00: Instead of the the 9th Berlin Art Biennale, we chose to visit the International Design Festival, since the Biennale was around for another couple of weeks. This is certainly a fantastic city for art and artists. Below are a few of the displays that were presented at Kraftwerk, a huge warehouse/industrial building in Berlin Mitte near the Heinrich-Heine Station

14:30: Walked through trendy streets in the Mitte near Rosenthaler Platz. The KW Institute for Art, one of the Biennale centers, is located on Augustus Strasse. It parallels another delightful alley, Linienstrasse, that is sprinkled with cafes, one-of-a-kind handmade items, and art galleries. I had a red lentil and avocado sandwich with a German rose wine across the street from the old Jewish school. Melissa and I had seen the Kennedy Exhibition there in January 2016.

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16:00: Stop at my Air BNB on Brunnenstrasse for a cake and coffee break.

17:00: Visit the Bernauer Strasse wall exhibit (see posting from last week)

18:00: Alexanderplatz pit stop, with a Afrikaner Festival food and entertainment in high gear.IMG_2594

19:45: Performance of the Return of Tobias, an Oratorium by Joseph Haydn at the Elizabeth Church around the corner from where I am staying.

This was a bonus performance. I was debating about whether to go after such a full day. The performance was sold out, but seating behind the orchestra was available for 5 euros! I could enjoy the full choir, orchestra, and professional quality opera singers and kick my shoes off at the same time. The performance began with actors at the cemetery a couple of blocks away, setting the stage for the story. Everyone returned to the church, where the full story, singing, and beautiful music in an intimate setting unfolded. A delightful close to an exhausting day.

The following day’s activities started with alot of guilt-laden German studying, but in the afternoon I treated myself to a brilliant performance of “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner at the Deutsche Oper. The marathon performance lasted 5 hours, from 4pm until 9pm. (Only the Meistersinger at the SF Opera was longer at 6 hours). Needless to say, the German stiff upper lip in me kicked in. In classic behavior, when in Berlin, do as the Berliners do.

The opera was very moving and emotionally draining–one of the best I have ever seen. To top it off, there was a standing ovation. That was a thrill. First to see a heart-pounding performance, then to witness genuine, never-ever inflated gratitude offered by a hard-core, German audience.

By purchasing student rush tickets an hour before, I am able to procure the best seats available (5th row from the stage, 9th seat in from the end) for 15 euros (thanks to the Goethe Institute). The only minor inconvenience being so far forward is having to tilt my head up to read the double subtitles in German and English. That’s hardly a problem or complaint for what I am getting at these prices. The difference in cost of opera tickets pays for my four-week German class!!

For the next two to three days, I was completely free from my German Class military-style training and academic obligations. I raced around to the spots that I missed, then spent the final 24 hours on a day trip to Dessau to visit the historic Bauhaus Workshop, School and Houses.

48 Hours in Berlin

The Berlin Biennale was in full swing throughout Berlin. To catch up, I made a pilgrimage to Fasanenstrasse, a small, elegant street near the Zoological Gardens and Uhlanstrasse Station. A few of the galleries promoted in the Art Forum “picks” are located here, including the Galerie Kornfeld, that was showing “The End of Flags” by Hubert Scheibl.

The Bucholz Gallery, where Melissa and I visited in January, presented the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. He was born in Remscheid in 1968. His work covered photographs of his studio and the accumulation of paper.

Not particularly inspiring, but I found the gallery itself much more exciting. It is an historic, protected building with beautiful Art Nouveau tendrils on the ceiling, panels over doorways, and in the carved oak staircase in the vestibule.

Contrasted with the stark white walls, it was easy to appreciate the delicacy and the artistry in the original building decoration. Contrary to my altbau where I am staying, this is what I would consider a classy version. There are also some really elegant auction houses and galleries promoting collector books and Asian antiques, gorgeous art nouveau jewelry and beautiful period silver by Georg Jensen and Henry Van de Velde.

After walking down the street and looking for a memorial plaque for Essad Bey or Nussibaum, I was very happy to discover it directly across the street from the Cafe for Literature and the adjacent Museum for Kathe Kollwitz. The Berlin literati must have hung out in this neighborhood. It felt like the Montparnasse area of Paris, except more compact.

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Essad Bey was a journalist who was both Jewish by birth and Muslim by election. He had a fascinating life history that is chronicled in the New York Times bestseller by Tom Reiss, “The Orientalist”. I was surprised that my German teacher had read the book when I told him it was my favorite book.

Born in Lake Baku, where one of the first oil discoveries was made, Bey lived an early riches to rags life. His family escaped after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey, then Paris, and eventually he was educated in Germany.  He became a journalist, was writing histories of Hitler and Mussolini, fell out of grace, and then died a tragic death. It’s a fascinating book where fiction and reality are often obscured.

Later in the morning, I walked about a mile east to KDW, Berlin’s version of Harrods or Galeries Lafayette. The top floor is devoted to gourmet food, with stations that offer a variety of seafood, meat, and a host of regional specialties. Up until now, I haven’t put much (or any) focus on eating. This was my opportunity to catch up.

The cases proudly presented cheese, sausages, and brot (bread). I looked for anything unique from the other gourmet food halls, but could only find wiener schnitzel and kartoffel stations. If you are into German food, you can get the gourmet version here. I succumbed to the bratwurst, senf (mustard) and sauerkraut, just as a show of loyalty. While this wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage to the annals of gourmet dining, I could still enjoy the German culinary ernestness. I bought a sample of Niederegger’s marzipan from Lubeck after hearing about it in my German class.

The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin was high on my list of places to visit. The exterior was odd, with the north-facing skylights a prominent feature of the design of the building. Thankfully,  a new museum is underway. After 883 international entries, a Spanish architect won the competition and beat out an American. You can see the entries, if you are interested, here: http://c4c-berlin.de/projekte/bmd-de/

The existing exhibition still contained all of my favorite things: design philosophy and principles from inception to reality; creative thinking; and highest quality craftsmanship. I was thoroughly engrossed and listened to every post on the audio guide (not a small feat, especially since it was in the afternoon!). Again, it reinforced my passion and dedication to good design.

Berlin Biennale

The Ninth Annual Berlin Biennale, as mentioned earlier, is underway this summer. In addition to the KW Center for Contemporary Art, the main anchor is at the Academy for Art, just inside the Brandenburg Gate. The exhibition in combination with the interior of the building was crazy beautiful and disgustingly fascinating. I couldn’t decide which photos to include, so here is a mix-match of both exhibits and building features (renovated by Beynisch Architects from Stuttgart in 2005):

Click on the photos above to increase the images.

The terrace featured a virtual reality presentation. I stood in line for the 3-4 minute scene that was pretty entertaining and worthwhile. The scene showed the view from the top of Brandenburg Gate, fogged up, then dove to an underwater sequence. The person in the photo is bending over to look through the viewer underwater.

The evening was topped off with a final opera. The Deutsche Oper unveiled a new production of the “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” by Mozart. If you remember what a rogue and rock star Mozart was in his day (drinking, women, and wild living), this production really conveyed that. They brought the days of Mozart to contemporary status, complete with nudity, sniffing cocaine, and searching for home (a la ET).

Initially, I didn’t want to go, as I had seen an old video of this opera. It was very hoaky and racist. One of the opera students in the GI had seen a preview of the preview and recommended it to me. She emphasized that it had been updated and was worth seeing. She was right, but there were still a few questionable moments in the opera left over from Mozart that were hard to overlook.

The bare naked bodies were less surprising to me, as “Tristan und Isolde” had unveiled their own version of nudity to me earlier. I’m not sure it’s becoming a trend for opera, but I wondered how the old ladies at the opera regarded these scenes. They didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows, from what I could decipher. Everyone, including me, stayed WIDE AWAKE. If that’s one way to get a more alert audience, it definitely worked.

The story line is simple–a group of young people get captured by an extra terrestrial and are sent to a far away land. They try to find their way back. In the mean time, they are living a fast and senseless life with sex, drugs and videotapes. They search for a way back. It was a great production, very hip, and very well received. Look for this updated opera with fantastic music and even a few “Queen of the Night” arias sprinkled in for extra amusement.


Note: look for the curtain call with the scantily clad girls–some of them only put on underwear in the final scene!!

Winter in Berlin

The following post was written on a visit to Berlin in January, 2016, six months before I studied German there in June, 2016.

OK, this was an unplanned visit to my favorite adopted country. My daughter Melissa is between jobs and after contemplating Morocco or Mexico City, we agreed that Berlin was not a bad option for interesting food, art and culture.

Our first of two weeks revolved around a number of upcoming new restaurants, galleries that are open over the holiday break, and special performances.

After stalking many of Europe’s best venues, I learned that there are impresarios who descend on famous sites such as the Berlin Philharmonic. When the orchestra is off, they lease the facilities. Many of the promotions cater to local tourists from France, Italy and Eastern Europe.

The usual Swan Lake, Mozart masterpieces, and Strauss waltzes are offered, but are not part of the regular program. While we did partake in a Russian ballet company performance, it takes a bit of close navigation to understand who is producing what and when.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing a bit of traditional ballet contrasted with a modern version by Duarto/Kylian, two contemporary choreographers. The latter audience was much younger and local, while the former was stocked with a mostly tourist audience.

There are museums and galleries galore here, probably too numerous to count. For that, Berlin beats Mexico City hands down. We tackled the Pergamon earlier over the weekend with friend Vladimir from Meissen with some difficulty, as the Museum Island is still being renovated and access to each museum is limited.

Yesterday we covered art galleries in the Prenzlauer and Kreuzberg areas that included the Institute for Contemporary Art and the Kunstraum Kreuzberg. Old schoolhouses have been repurposed for gallery use as well as after school music and arts programs. A decent cafe in each allows visitors to enjoy the environment while warming up to the cold chill (and now snow) outside.

The Kennedy clan are well known to Berliners, almost more than to Americans. Aside from JFK’s famous quote, he was known to protect West Berlin from succumbing to the Communists in East Berlin. A small but significant historical detail.

The Xmas Markets were fun to explore and finally experience. The “gluhwein” tastes better than it sounds, and is merely what we call mulled wine. And the stollen or Xmas cake leaves a bit to be desired, particularly when traveling with a pastry chef.

The hip new food fare here, however, has been delightfully innovative, inexpensive, and thoughtful. While not always successful (veggies a bit on the raw side), the intent on making food healthy, delicious and beautifully pleasing to the eye is very evident. While not a foodie myself, I am swept up by the company I am keeping. Traveling with one can cause you to get into the picture pretty fast. Take a look at some of the plates: my favorite was the avocado and red beets on toast. Easy enough to make me want to make it as soon as I return home..

For the wannaknows, we hit Lokal, Industry Standard, and Horvath.

On our last day in Berlin, we started the morning with breakfast at the Coffee House for Literature. Located in a pre-war building on Fasanstrasse just south of the Zoological Garden stop and near the Uhlanstrasses Metro Station, this famous coffee house rivalled that of the Cafe Einstein in Kurfürstendam, where writers, poets and intellectuals gathered over addictive coffee. We ventured into one of the Berlin galleries listed in Art Forum, but the exhibition was very tiny and not as fruitful as our visit to another recommendation at Kunstraum Kreuzberg on Marienplatz earlier in the week.

We made it just in time to Potsdamer Platz to attend a free noontime concert at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall. The symphony was not performing due to the holiday schedule. Instead, we were able to listen to a short Mozart chamber music performance. On the program, parents are reminded that lunchtime concerts are not aimed explicitly at children, and therefore should only bring children who are able to remain “quietly seated for approximately 45 minutes”. That seemed very reasonable and successful as a message.

We battled the elements during most of our short visit to Germany and Holland, and this day was no exception. We decided to take a short walk to the Culture Forum, where the Gemälde Gallery of the Staatliche Museum of Berlin is located. It is a huge repository of art and it held major exhibitions on the Botticelli Renaissance and Albrecht Durer. Surprisingly, we found more Vermeers, Bosches, Brueghels, and Rembrandts here than those in the Rijksmuseum. We realized that the Dutch Masters were scattered throughout Europe and that the paintings by native sons were not necessarily displayed in their host countries.

The Botticelli exhibition compared many other artists’ work that emulated the classical Botticelli Venus. She served as a model and inspiration for many other artists, from Neo-Classicists such as Ingres to Elsa Schiaparelli, a dress designer. For me, I found the latter day 19th Century renditions by John Ruskin and William Morris, early leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the most interesting. You can see the rich textures of the Morris tapestry already creating the signature pattern that later became so famous in the Liberty of London wall coverings.

I found myself particularly attracted to exhibitions that compare and contrast two different artists’ work. They seem to provide a lesson in comparative world history and painting that I otherwise wouldn’t discover. I am also becoming more comfortable with and more whetted to art museums as a cultural and intellectual experience. I have an opportunity to learn history in a visual way that is easy and interesting for me. The excellent curating and wealth of material certainly enhance these comparisons in the few museums we visited on this trip.

By the end of the day, we were pretty wiped. Nevertheless, my professional food guide was relentless and targeted a German restaurant as gesture to my insatiable appetite for things German for the finale. Sadly, it was closed for the holiday cleaning! We went to the next best, an Austrian restaurant famed for its Wiener Schnitzel. If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice that the regular fork looks out of scale with the schnitzel on the plate. That’s because the schnitzel was super-sized!

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The day before, we beat it back from Amsterdam to hit a local Kreuzberg Turkish restaurant.

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Ich bin eine Berlinerin

My month’s stay in Berlin was quickly drawing to a close, and I had a confession to make. Dresden is no longer my favorite city. Berlin has definitely topped it. I can cite all the reasons, but I feel guilty. Up until this point, I didn’t want to mess with my determination to be true to only one love. But Berlin has been so seductive, that I can’t help but declare a new winner.

There are the obvious elements: the culture, the energy and vibrancy of the city, the opportunity and capacity for more. Berliners have a very honest and understanding perspective on their history, and are intelligent about the many competing facets of politics, economics, and social responsibility.

Aside from sweeping generalizations, let me give you a couple of examples. Going into the Natural History Museum (Naturkunst), you feel like you are entering a cave of mankind, with the stodgy old building, guards who predate the DDR, and an air of the old mensa in the canteen. Yet the displays for both adults and children were among the most illuminating (literally and mentally) that I have seen in any museum. They brought to life the complicated story of mankind and got you excited about being one of billions of living organisms on earth.

The fastidious art history guide who led our Goethe Institute visits to museums was very checked, efficient and to the point. When she came to meet the group on her bike, she walked it through the crowded streets of Berlin and escorted us to the museums a mile away. It demonstrated the commitment the locals have to logical living. She was a 50+, so it was particularly nice to see older people staying fit.

Speaking of being fit, I had promised one of the trainers at UCSF that I would investigate the healthy living differences in Europe for her. There isn’t any better place to do that but in Berlin. Germans see it as part of their life style and holistic way of living–you are what you eat, you do it in as responsible a way as possible, and you keep life and everything around you in balance. More people are into nuts and fruits, expensive bio-produkts, and health than most Americans. And there are many discussions about work-life balance, deep breathing, and yoga mats.

All of my German classes devote units to fitness and health, so I may be getting an extra dose because it is a language course. Maybe all language courses, by time you get past introductory vocabulary, have to start tackling more challenging subjects to keep students engaged with contemporary topics. Yet I found the extensive recycling descriptions that cover all the different types of waste in German more intriguing to me and a cultural commitment above all else.

Combined with the general German focus on living a sound and healthy life, there is an emphasis on kids and education. True, kids are becoming a scarce resource in Germany, and therefore not surprising to see Angela Merkel embracing immigration. But kids historically from the “kinder garten” to  free Waldorf schools to free University-wide education is amazing to me. One of the Italian students comes here to do her Ph.D. because the education is free if she gets placed. WOW!! Where are all the American students who want to study abroad! Going to Canada???? I wish I had known this before.

I hope I have provided a few convincing arguments. These have little to do with what I have been writing about in terms of art, music, and culture. But they permeate all the different little decisions that go into the creation of those higher, more ethereal and less accessible elements of society. In Germany, there is a deeper appreciation of one’s history and a need to share it. It will still take generations to amend the past, but it is on the road to recovery.

While these differences don’t make the case for Berlin over Dresden, it’s probably just the size and proportion factor that gives way to my new-found fascination. Berlin as a city has many treasures yet to be found, while Dresden, like an old shoe, has been very comfortable and always willing to serve.

Europe Series/Silk Road Extension: Berlin (D1)

In case you haven’t been following the flow of my posts over the past several months, I have been reposting travels around the world from Mongolia in the Far East westward through countries along the Silk Road. Uzbekistan, Iran and the Caucasus are seldom traveled but contain countless UNESCO World Heritage sites and fascinating histories. If you missed them, please check these posts, republished since the advent of COVID-19 in March of this year.

While the Central Asian countries along the Silk Road have been my primary focus, I also spent many months studying German in Germany. Including the European countries I visited in the last five years is an extension to the Silk Road travels.

These countries are presented in the path of travel rather than in chronological order I was there. I’ve stitched them together so you can compare and contrast each country or city along the chain. In the case of the German cities, the order began with Munich, Schwäbisch Hall, Düsseldorf, and now Berlin. (I’m saving my favorite, Dresden, for last, but admittedly out of sync!)

Despite the COVID-era doldrums for fellow travelers, I hope you will, like me, enjoy revisiting prior travels like those in this series. Please share your thoughts and memories—we’re all in this together!

Please bear in mind that these edited posts on Berlin were originally written in 2016–a mere five years ago. Observations may already appear dated, but they could also be forecasts for what we see now.

Burling into Berlin


IMG_2272Above: the Berlin Tower with a new base

Currently the place where I am staying is known as an “alt bau”, or an old building. I had imagined it as an old Baroque building, finely tailored and detailed, but renovated with modern conveniences. Not. I am in an old building. It will take a bit of getting used to, but it’s going to be fine.

Berlin is wired, both on coffee and devices. Everywhere, at least in the Mitte, people sit outside once the good weather appears. They pull out stools and tables from inside their coffee houses, the laundry or offices.  The coffee and the laptops follow, and nothing less than a Macbook Air. Germans like sturdiness and quality. People sit staring at an open laptop and do double duty with a smart phone in front of their computers, just like we do in San Francisco. The only difference is that they can do it in plain sight and en plein air.

Sports shoes are the hot new fashion statement. Every shop in Mitte where I am staying seems to have a full array of snappy looking shoes with white bumper guards, for not a lot of money. It does feel as if design is a high priority here, with more quality and variety in clothing and furnishings. Mitte feels like an up-and-coming St. Germaine-de-Pres. It will soon become too pricey to afford. I’d give it two to five years at the most.

My first day of class at the Goethe Institute was Monday, and I am already fully immersed. There are 12 students in my Intensive, 4-week Intermediate level class, and Herr Göbels is a mature and native German speaker. After nearly five hours of class in the afternoon from 1:15-5:45 including precious breaks, we are pretty wasted.

Above: Photos of the oldest church in Berlin, the Heilig Geist, with an artistic expression at the entry to the church.

The extensive cultural programs for students focus on the different neighborhoods in this diverse city. The first tour this morning was Berlin Mitte and the oldest section of the city. An evening lecture provided an overview of the cultural city of Weimar. Having just been there, I learned much more about Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, Liszt, and Wagner. Liszt had conducted Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar, and Richard Strauss wrote “Thus Spake Zarasthustra” based on Nietzsche’s book by the same name. There are planned field trips to Potsdam, the opera, ballet and museums, so I am a happy camper!

However, it’s back to the grindstone. I have homework and audio assignments to finish before class tomorrow! I enjoy the focus, learning about the host country, and meeting a wide spectrum of students from many countries. I highly recommend a similar program for any language learner.

The Deutsches Historical Museum

The new wing showcases the architecture of I.M. Pei. He also designed the East Wing of the National Gallery and the prominent entrance to the Louvre. (As an architect, I am always glad to recognize the work of world-famous architects, but especially proud of Asian and women architects!)

Potsdamer Platz

The story of the Berlin Wall  was displayed in posters at Potsdamer Platz. After going to the Stasi Museum in Leipzig, I was more curious about the events that led to Reunification in Berlin. The story is told in these words and pictures and includes a healthy (?) supply of bubble gum stuck to the old wall relics. Click on each image to increase the size and readability.

Berlin Street Art (excerpted from post in June, 2016)

The Goethe Institute’s Berlin Program treated students to a leisurely afternoon walk through Kreuzberg and adjacent Friedrichshain area where a solid core of artists live and work. A river divides East and West and served as a natural boundary in the city, so it was natural for many political and artistic statements to be expressed on both sides of the divide.

Its easy to lose one’s bearings in Berlin. Streets swirl around in circles, crooked alleys, and curvy swerves around bumps. The Berlin wall never seems to be far from sight, and the meandering boundary keeps you guessing which side you are on. Both today and yesterday are often spoken in the same breath, and for that it makes living here fascinating.

The guide shared a very balanced view of the rights and liberties taken by the street artists. While not all were political in nature, they certainly were aware of the limits of their art and how to deliver it. Street art is different from graffiti art. The former is planned and presented for others to enjoy or experience, whereas the latter is intended for groups within a circle or group.

Sometimes the boundary between the two are unclear. Graffiti art is illegal by nature and therefore must be executed very quickly, without being caught or discovered in the act of the execution. Street Art teams often do likewise. They plan and execute the art, so HOW it is done is part of the excitement and danger. Art placed at the tops of buildings require complicated suspension systems, mirrors, bravado, and demonstrate the skill of artists.

While onlookers marvel at the daringness of graffiti artists, street art is much more deliberate and varied. As shown in the photos, there can be paint, stencils, applied images, and many other creative forms on buildings. In either case, the government and building owners have a say in whether the art stays or goes. For political and aesthetic statements, artists have to consider whether public opinion will be swayed to support their cause, or if it will suffer its own demise by being painted over or cannibalized by graffiti.

This type of public art may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly gave me more reason to appreciate the courage and abilities of the artists who choose this medium to express themselves.

Hip Berlin
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At the end of the tour, we ended up near Warschauer Strasse, a flea market and large industrial zone with old warehouses buzzing with locals. It was a very “hip” place with innovative food and drinks offered both inside and outside. I was glad that I had a map to quickly check my bearings and to not rely solely on the guide’s directions.

Central Berlin

Yesterday’s tour to Potsdam and Sans Souci Palace was more tame but just as challenging. We spent the better part of a day in the blazing sun and walked over 6 miles from the local train station to the town center, the new chambers of King Friedrich the Great, and surrounding gardens.

The end of the day was capped with a Deutsche Oper performance of “Il Troubadour” (more commonly known as “Il Trovatore”). Got one of the best seats in the house for 15 Euros, compliments of the Goethe Institute. Below is a view of the attendees enjoying the summer-like weather before the performance at the outdoor terrace.

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EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Düsseldorf, GERMANY (C)

Preface: this is a reprint from a series of posts from June 2017. Due to COVID-19 restrictions to traveling, I am compiling past travels to help us cherish the joys and foibles of humanity. Some observations have even more relevance today and speak to our need to slow down. This post is long like a podcast, so enjoy a glass of wine as you read. You can click on any photo to start a slide show for easier viewing.

S-L-O-W Living

We talk a lot about slow food but not slow living. I have spent a lot of time meandering through parks in Düsseldorf, partly because you run into one in any direction before you know it. The city parks are incredibly accessible, well-maintained, and beautiful here. Because Düsseldorf is along the meandering banks of the Rhine River, it is relatively flat. A lot of bikes travel at a reasonable pace and share the footpath with pedestrians. It reminds everyone to slow down. Maybe it’s time to think about slow living.

Here are some views of one of the beautiful parks in the heart of the city.

I’m blasting a series of shots of buildings, sights, and details here:

And for modern architecture: Daniel Liebskind’s masterpiece of the Ko and Shadow-Arkaden, a mixed use office and retail complex. The exterior on the Nordliche Dussel (a small lake) side is mesmerizing. The buildings speak to the river with its reflections and undulating curves. The rear wavy-gravy houses Apple and Tesla, and there is an intimate plaza for people-watching.

Now I know and agree why Düsseldorf is deemed one of the ten most livable cities in the world.

I even managed to break out pen and paper to sketch a static and well-behaved model to prepare for my upcoming sketching class.

And the music legacy lives on as well…here’s the parting music and dance that took place on a casual 90 degree afternoon on Konigsallee around the corner from my apartment:

In Düsseldorf, you can hear year-end recitals by students at the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule free of charge. The piano recital I attended had a dozen or so students. Watch for these world-beaters in the upcoming years. The majority were Asian students. It will be interesting to see how they can influence Western music in their own countries.

I’m finally getting around town and am starting to like this place. There’s a reason for it being in the top ten livable cities in the world: a vibrant economy, clean streets, energetic people, and lots of historic and cultural sites to visit. What’s not to like?!?

Sunday Strolling along the Rhine is a Dusseldorf must-do, and a beautiful one at that. Its promenade is one of the longest and prettiest that I have seen anywhere. Here’s a snippet of the casual ambience, combined with a Sunday afternoon book fair. Of course everyone reads books here!

Neaderthal Museum

Over the weekend, friend Vladimir was visiting and we made a stop at the Neanderthal Museum. Not one of my favorite periods, but here’s a tiny description of the 2,500,000 years of Migration, described as a “river”, with ebbs and flows” (step up the slide show to view):

The burial discovery of a family of 14 showed how they were hacked by axes, where blows to the head were visible. The museum is the site for a discovery of Neanderthal man that was dated to 40,000 years ago, but earlier discoveries of Neanderthal man were made in Belgium before then. A number of artifacts and archaeological finding were duplicated and used to explain the evolution of man.

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We made it back in time to see an innovative and clever version of the “Magic Flute”. The Germans are experimenting with new ways to present and appreciate classic operas. In this one, they used the Buster Keaton silent film era graphics and period style as the backdrop for the beautifully enduring music. It worked well, the graphics and animated portions were original, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Barry Kosky, an Australian, was the director for the production and has now since become one of Germany’s most famous and sought-after creators of new and innovative opera interpretations.

Art in Düsseldorf

The attention to art, music and culture in Düsseldorf is clearly evident, albeit subtle at times. In addition to promoting fashion, media, and trade fairs, the city has a bright and forward-thinking approach that will continue to make it a leader in these industries.

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Frank Gehry’s Media Hafen along the Rhine

Unless you knew about Luther promoter Cranach and German Expressionist Otto Dix, these exhibitions may have slipped right past you. After a walk through a stately collection of Modernist buildings, I discovered the Kunst (Art) Academy, where Gerhard Richter studied and taught.

I originally came to the area seeking art supplies, and was delighted to find a tidy art store complete with what I needed for my sketching class in Morocco.

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I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to lay everything out for you. Just like ingredients for a soup, these are going to be the base and the flavor for my upcoming sketches. I loved all the German-quality sketch paper, colored pencils, pastels, graphite pencils and holder, and even the UHU glue stick. After further inspection, however, I discovered that the gray pliable art eraser (in a plastic case) came from Malaysia and the markers from Korea. Oh well.

And just so you know I have my priorities straight, I stopped at the German bakery Heinemann’s for a kirsch cake over a Chocolate sponge and chocolate biscuit. They even packed the whipped cream with tender care “to go”.

Studying German in Düsseldorf

After an eventful day traveling from London via Brussels and Köln to Düsseldorf, I settled down to my “home” for the entire month.

My AirBnB hostess quickly corrected me as she watched me unsuccessfully enter the internet access password she had given me. She reminded me that Düsseldorf needs to spelled “DuEsseldorf” to be correct. No E, no Entry to the Magic Kingdom of the Internet.. OK, right, as they say in the U.K.

Some of my former German class buddies may be curious to hear how my class is shaping up. Students are diverse in age and nationality. One or two Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesians; Ukrainians, South Americans, Saudis, British and Americans.  It’s best to avoid groups of three or more students from the same country as clumps and gangs form! I’m pretty satisfied with the collection for now, but we’ll see.

After learning about all the fairy tales in class to conjugate the past tense in German, I was wondering if I hadn’t shrunk myself. At the place where I am staying, the owner trains horses and is about 6′ tall. She fitted out the apartment to suit her height. The kitchen table is at my chest height. Standing up (because there are no chairs this high, not even bar stools), I can slurp soup directly from the bowl on the table top without having to lift it.

I also need a stool to get to the bottom shelf of the overhead kitchen cabinets. I wonder if I’m not going to face an avalanche of dishes stored over my head every time I reach for one. It’s a pretty funny scene after the third or fourth time around when I try to cut corners. I really feel like a dwarf.

Speaking of dwarves, we learned all about Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood in my German class. Don’t forget that these stories all come from Germany. The Schwarzwald, or Black Forest, isn’t far from here either. I always thought that the stories had a dark and ominous tone to them. I never understood why little kids were always getting lost in the forest. But not to worry. Walt Disney borrowed them, sanitized them, and made them safe harbors for the Disney Empire.

Multi-Tasking

Our first German class topic was about the brain and learning. It was a great introduction to the up-to-date, state of the art German education. It quoted the most current research, citing numerous examples of ways to retain new information. I reflected on the brain research studies in San Francisco: superstar Adam Gazzaley’s research on distraction and brain landscapes.

We have devoted our lives to multi-tasking to the point of distraction. While hipsters can manage and focus, it’s a bigger challenge for those of us who have built multiple careers on prior knowledge. It gives us little time to clear out the attic and the clutter is evident.

As part of learning new German vocabulary, our class was taught all the various learning styles: seeing, hearing, speaking, and a combination of speaking and movement. We should vary exercises and not be fixated on only one method. For instance, walk around and recite seven new words, but no more, for very short periods. These suggestions are based on brain studies and the most effective ways to retain information.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus….

We also learned in class that men learn quickly but also shut down information quicker than women. This started a lively conversation stereotyping men’s and women’s learning styles. It was too tempting to resist judgment between the sexes: one student claimed that men were smarter while women paid more attention to detail.

This naturally caused a call to arms between my new kindred English woman architect classmate and me. We exchanged some rapid eye movement and eye rolling and began to dispute the claim. Initiated by a couple of male students from “not-so-liberated” countries, we stepped up and did what would have done Gloria Steinem proud. But in the midst of it, I felt a sad mood descending on our spirited encounter.

A few months back, I had seen a program about the Flüchtlingen (refugee) experience in Germany on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of Voice of America. A recent immigrant interviewed expressed his gratitude for free and public education, housing, and health care, but he noted how he was not accustomed to going to training classes with female students. I couldn’t help but flash on this observation.

I wondered what experience one of these male students had in classes with women students. While I don’t consider myself a super-feminist, I saw the huge canyon between my perspective and this classmate.
Should nations of Western Europe and the US strive to convince the world to go our way? Or are we imposing our might on others? I felt as if there was a mountain of work convincing this student that women were as good as men. Maybe women in his country just don’t ever get a chance to take men to task. Where does that put Angela Merkel, a chemical engineer, running a major country? Or maybe we should just back off?

I was grateful that I lived in the US, where you are at least free to enter the ring. We assume that Diversity means other races and cultures but in some cases we have to remember to include women on the list.

Why Study German?

Many of my friends are astounded by my staying power for German culture. German could be regarded as passionless rather than passionate, dry as opposed to juicy, tired instead of energetic. To me, they are all the positive words I use.

My deep respect for the technical foundation of Germany was obvious to our family friend in Bath.  He knew exactly why I come here, and cited the Bauhaus before I could claim the catch phrase. Even though he isn’t as obsessed as I am, he’s close to being an architect in mind and practice. Judging from his beautiful home in Bath, he already manifests an Bauhaus way of combining design and engineering together.

I’ve written about this in great detail in the past, but for newcomers, I’ll summarize three reasons, well actually, four, why I come to Germany every year:

1. To learn the second language I started in high school, fell in love with (after 5 years of studying French), but never had enough time to pursue;

2. To develop my love for the integration of art and science in architecture, and to savor Germany’s application of art history and technical skills together;

3. To learn about and follow opera in German.

4. An extremely understanding husband, who lives with a crazy woman and gets a month off every year to recover from the other 11 months of being with her.

That’s my reason for being in and doing Germany. As for Dusseldorf, it’s in the top ten of liveable cities in the world, so why not? It’s the fourth in a series where I have chosen to study in Germany, after Dresden, Schwabisch Hall, and Berlin, in that order. Some of you may have missed earlier posts (Berlin is next on the list of this series).

Yesterday, our German teacher explained that up until the Soccer World Cup win in Germany in 2014, Germany had never openly displayed the German flag. We were just learning the word for flag, and it was our teacher’s teachable moment.

Multi-Culturalism in Germany (post script: these following paragraphs were written in 2017, that somehow now have even more relevance.)

In Frankfurt, I met a nice African-American woman, Carol Lynn. She had been working and living in Germany for over 35 years. She came from DC, so I couldn’t help but rave to her about the NMAAHC. She listened politely, then told me briefly about her life. Her family was already 5 or 6 generations traceable, back to the original slave owner. Her family of 9 siblings promoted many offspring, numbering over 100 members in the family and 50 nieces! She had many jobs working both as military and civilian personnel supporting our American presence in Germany.

I began to realize how many Americans are in Germany. Until now, most of my travel had been concentrated on Eastern Germany or in the countryside, so it was less evident. This conversation gave me perpective. Particularly for African Americans, I wondered if it wasn’t a more positive experience abroad than at home. Like James Baldwin, African-Americans could escape systemic racism in America.

It’s important for all cities to embrace its members in a multicultural society. It isn’t enough for struggling minorities to merely “parallel play” and be marginalized.  All cultures must be engaged in a common goal and feel that they are contributing collectively to the vibrancy of the city to which they belong.

Apropos to all of these observations and experiences, I had asked husband Gee Kin to reflect on our recent travels. Here are his thoughts, and please send us yours.

Diversity in the World’s Great Cities by Gee Kin Chou


San Francisco is considered one of the great cities of the world. However, it’s a mere village compared to two other great cities on the list: New York and London.

I’m not talking about size; I’m talking about diversity.

Within the 64 square miles of San Francisco proper, White and Asian faces dominate. Yes, Latinos and African Americans become a larger part of the picture when you expand the geography to the greater San Francisco Bay Area, but many are marginalized; African Americans in particular live in increasingly segregated communities. Africans from Africa, and Islamic headscarves are rare.

In New York, and even more so in London, a random day is likely to include contacts with several ethnicities. The shop assistant may have emigrated from Egypt, the bank teller from Nigeria, the hotel clerk from Bulgaria, the waitress in the upscale restaurant from Colombia and the electrician from Barbados. Every day encounters with ordinary people doing ordinary things. It may seem trivial but this is not the daily Bay Area experience.

I had always thought the “diversity” of the Bay Area was the future and the role model for the rest of the world. But visiting New York and London after a long hiatus has reminded me not to get too smug about San Francisco.

Essen in Essen

Essen always had a curious name, since it sounds like the German word for “Food”, or “to eat”. There doesn’t appear to be any connection. I was tempted to feature the food we ate in town, but it wasn’t anything remarkable. A side trip from Dusseldorf to nearby Essen takes only a half hour by train, so friend Helena and I planned a full day excursion there.

At the positive assertion of a fellow architect and German student, we spent the afternoon exploring the massive Zollverein, a coal mine converted to a museum for explaining the extraction, production and transport of black gold. As a UNESCO world site, this was the heart of the famous Ruhr Valley.

Like the African-Americans who migrated from the Deep South to the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II, many migrants came from Poland at the end of the 19th Century to this rapidly developing industrialized area. In the 1950’s and 1980’s, many new migrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Russia and Romania arrived in this area and other parts of Germany to search for a better life.

The museum had a you-name it-we have it approach to anything and everything to do with coal and beyond. The plant area was so extensive, it could be a quarry for humanity. Integrated with the coal production factory itself, the collections included dinosaurs, Roman ruins, Greek urns, geological rock samples, and memorabilia. It felt a bit like the Tate Gallery and the High-Line concept in New York City thrown into one gigantic area, but it tries very hard to not be a theme park.

I amused myself by looking for the oldest fossil and located coral imprints that were 600 million years old!! My favorite though, was just a tender young fish print checking in at a measly 60 million years.

In addition to the actual production lines, scaled models were used to demonstrate the work flow. The tidiness and efficient Bauhaus-designed buildings didn’t reduce the cast of sadness and grueling work that must have taken place there. Work conditions were so poor that many workers did not live long. Below is a short clip of one of the videos presented (unfortunately in German only) that shows how the coal could be delivered from the shaft to the ground in 30 seconds:

In the evening, Helena and I saw Romeo and Juliet, the ballet by Prokofiev. The music was stirring and the performers expressive. We experienced a rare standing ovation by a primarily local crowd (i.e., no tourists), so it was definitely worth seeing. Recognition by the audience in such a warm way has been a rarity in my experience in Germany, but when it happens, you know you have seen something amazing.

The ballet was performed in the famous theater designed by Finland’s namesake architect, Alvar Alto. The flat panels of granite covering the building seemed strange on curved surfaces. He didn’t seem to think that poured-in-place concrete would be acceptable for such a noble building.

I couldn’t resist sharing this photogenic shot of Helena, my friend and traveling companion from Switzerland.  Every year, we attend music festivals in Germany or Switzerland. Some of you may remember seeing her in previous posts in Dresden. We keep threatening to tackle Salzburg together, or maybe a music festival near where she lives next. She prefers ballet over opera, but we compromise and go to both as well as concerts.

As a physician and therapist, she has traveled the world and lived in many places. She has an admirable life, from moving to Switzerland in high school from the States, to studying in China (where she and Gee Kin met), building a hospital in Mozambique, and working at a sleep clinic in Switzerland! She also has an amazing outlook on life that is energetic and contagious. She kept me on my toes (literally, trying to keep up with her pace), and fit enough for a queen.

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At the end of the weekend Helena and I went to another local event at Düsseldorf’s Oper am Rhein with a joint Russian and German concert. The program included arias from many popular operas, including Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni, and Puccini. If that weren’t enough, we were in for another standing ovation.

The warm crowd (maybe a lot of passionate Russians?) clearly loved the performers and the music. We did too. But two in a row? If I don’t watch out, I will have to amend my comments on the rarity of standing ovations among German audiences. I could swear I didn’t detect any over-enthusiastic Americans or their accents prompting or provoking the crowd. In any event, it was a very satisfying weekend of walking, talking, listening, watching and enjoying life.