PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 12-14

While pandemonium in the Bay Area over getting vaccinations prevails, New Zealand has been steadfast and calm over the rush to get everyone vaccinated. Naturally, the state of health for its citizens are just as much a concern as for those in the U.S., but the order of magnitude is much more significant in the States. As a tiny country and with prudent practice, New Zealand waits to see how other countries handle their vaccination programs and whether any adverse outcomes may result from the injections or the procedures.

We are neither vaccinated here nor there. We watch the news each day to see what unfolds in both countries. I rely on news feeds as mentioned previously from RNZ, San Francisco Chronicle, NY Times, and Deutsche Welle. Most are focused on the delay of vaccination deliveries.

In the mean time, we continue to go about daily life as usual–trips to the market, going to see movies, museum visits, and mall shopping. By American standards, extraordinary. By New Zealand standards, ordinary, but still cautious. There have been a few breaches and cases. so people still scan their devices for contact tracing, a process that doesn’t even exist in the States,

Let’s Get Together and Go for a Walk in the Park!

The past couple of weeks have been filled with many delicious walks through the myriad parks in Central Christchurch. Daughter Melissa laughed at me when I told her that there were too many public spaces in Christchurch for people to consume. From Hagley Park along the Avon River, there are plenty of strolls to sooth the soul.

Rose Garden on a Sunday Afternoon

The New Zealand Symphony performed a medley of themes from Blockbuster movies such as “Goldfinger”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Star Trek”, “Magnificent Seven” and crowd favorite “Lord of the Rings”. In both cases, as you can see, it is inevitable for dancers get out and take advantage of the music.

Victoria Park on a Saturday evening
(Apologies for the wind sweep!)

Sketching in Christchurch

Along with the German Language exchange, I joined a local sketch group. We meet weekly at the library to sketch each other, work on personal art projects, and chat. I still participate in hometown sketching via Zoom. Both the monthly Portrait Parties below and the weekly Tuesday evening Jam Sessions give me an opportunity to stay in touch with San Francisco fellow sketchers as well as to engage in a variety of challenging and lively sketching tasks!

The following series was based on selecting favorite portraits, then sketching them or simulating them in costume and then sketching the simulations! A totally fun and engaging event that we plan to do again.

Sketching via Zoom has created opportunites for screen shots to freeze images while listening to live music. I also sketch from live shots to keep the eye-hand coordination sharp–but sometimes have to jump ship!

The second impeachment trial to convict Donald Trump took place this week. I captured four of the House Managers who gave their impassioned testimony claiming that Trump was directly responsible for inciting an insurrection on the National Capitol. Sadly, he was not convicted by a Senate vote of 57-43.

House Managers Jamie Raskin, Ted Lieu, Joaquin Castro and Joe Noguse

PANDEMIC DIARY FROM CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: WEEK 11

I follow RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, daily as a source for local information in the country. The feed earlier this week reported a COVID-19 case, where the virus was transmitted to two health care workers in a Christchurch quarantine facility last November, 2020.

Russian sea crew staying at the hotel spread the virus when they walked through hotel corridors to the smoking area outside. Sometimes they went up to 4 times an hour, so the movement was significant. They infected two health care personnel in the hotel through microaerosols in the air. After discovering that, the Ministry of Health put crew in single rooms (previously they had shared rooms) with balconies so the crewmen could smoke directly adjacent to their rooms without having to go through the corridors to do so.

This is just a good example how easily the virus can be transmitted. Knowledge about personal behavior and simple modifications can avoid transmission. But it is a huge challenge to change human behavior. It’s already difficult to convince people to wear masks. To ask them to refrain from smoking would be impossible.

In another story I read in the New York Times, a journalist traveling by car across the U.S. discovered little or no mask wearing during his stops. He was traveling from Connecticut to St. Louis to take his mother to meet a relative. The journalist was appalled at the lack of compliance in mask wearing. Signs were posted everywhere, but no one was complying.

This journalist’s report was discouraging to me. It didn’t give me much confidence in rushing back to the U.S., despite promising plans to vaccinate everyone. In the mean time, we continue to live safely in New Zealand. We take each day at a time and wait to see whether conditions will improve in the States.

We go about our daily activities, visiting the local library, shopping at the supermarket, running errands in town, and enjoying New Zealand’s beautiful, pristine environment. The oceans surrounding the islands and the mountains carved by earthquakes and volcanic activity are clearly visible everywhere. Sun, wind, and rain change constantly from hour to hour, so the weather is, yes, a major topic of discussion.

Mt. Pleasant

A hike up to the top of Mt. Pleasant near the house we are renting gave us spectacular views of Christchurch. The harbor at Ferrymead, beach at Sumner and many inlets along the bay provide housing sites with views to cherish. Paved and gravel roads to outlying areas lead to many walks and pathways for hikers and bikers. (See featured photo above)

Sumner Beach
Sumner Beach, with Cave Rock

Taking strolls along the Esplanade reminded me of the fancy turn-of-the-century promenades I imagine along Brighton in the U.K. Today they are filled with surfers, families, and foreign visitors. The scene looks very SoCal or something out of La Jolla. Like in Papamoa, the distance from car to beach is only a few steps.

Unfortunately, this Sumner building is a sad reminder of the earthquake in 2011. The first earthquake in Canterbury weakened the structures in Christchurch, then a second one in Lyttelton caused most of damage to buildings like this one. Buildings still standing vacant are looking for a developer to raze and renovate.

Sketching

Finally, a chance to sketch via Zoom with local Bay Area sketchers!

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.

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